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Controversial treatment could be next breakthrough in MS

July 21, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Nearly 400,000 people in the U.S. are prisoners in their own bodies because of multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease affecting the brain and nervous system.

Now, patients are traveling hundreds and even thousands of miles for a controversial treatment that's only performed by a few doctors in America.

In 2010, 48-year-old Barbara Garcia couldn't get across the room without a walker or wheelchair. Multiple sclerosis was taking its toll physically and mentally.

"I was 25 years old when I was diagnosed with MS," said Garcia. "It was like, 'Why me?' I've been trapped in an old person's body forever, so there's been no quality of life."

Tests showed Garcia had a narrowing in the jugular veins that some say is associated with MS. When Dr. Bulent Arslan at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute saw her tests, he agreed to do an experimental MS procedure called venoplasty for chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency - or CCSVI.

During the procedure, dye is injected into the jugular veins to locate the narrowed area. Then, similar to an angioplasty, a balloon is inserted into the vein and inflated to improve blood flow from the brain toward the heart.

"We do that until we get enough improvement in the vein and the flow so that blood flow is not restricted, and she started having improvements on the table, actually, which I did not believe at the time," said Arslan.

"He said, 'Let's see if you can walk,' and sure enough, I was able to get up and walk around the bed," said Garcia.

Now, Garcia can do a lot more than that - like take care of her granddaughter and even vacation in Spain. However, some doctors still believe the short- and long-term benefits of balloon venoplasty are being blown out of proportion.

"We need to make sure this procedure works, make sure it's durable, find out more about it," said Dr. Bruce Zwiebel, an interventional radiologist at Tampa General Hospital.

Being free of a walker or wheelchair is all the proof Garcia needs.

"It's just amazing," she describes.

Garcia's case was the first of 120 of such procedures for Arslan. Venoplasty is not a cure, but he said 70 to 80 percent of his MS patients who get the CCSVI procedure show improvement after treatment.


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