There are encouraging signs in multiple sclerosis research coming from a preliminary trial occurring at Fletcher Allen and UVM and 17 other centers around the world. Researchers are witnessing temporary reversals in the symptoms of some patients to a degree that has not been seen before.
When you see Jay Blum walk down the hall, you would never know he is an avid golfer, plays bass in a rock band and sometime bikes 30 miles. There is something else you wouldn't know looking at this 57-year-old from Shelburne until you hear him talk to his doctor; Blum is one of about 1,800 MS patients who is treated at Fletcher Allen.
"I can tell you that one in 500 Vermonters has MS. We have one of the highest prevalence and incidence in the United States," said Dr. Angela Applebee, director of the MS Center at Fletcher Allen.
Applebee says they don't know why so many people in Vermont have MS, but they have a few ideas.
She says a lack of vitamin D may be one of the causes, since we are further away from the equator.
Genetics play a role. The general population’s risk of getting MS is 1 percent, but if you have immediate family members with MS, your risk goes up to 3 percent.
She says being exposed to certain viruses can also increase your risk.
"What's happening with MS is that you're having inflammation of the coating of the nerves and there’s two goals I have now. One is to stop the inflammation and the second is to repair what's already happened in regards to the inflammation as far as the damage," said Applebee.
"My feet kind of went numb," said Blum.
That's how it started for Blum three years ago. A year after his diagnosis, he joined a clinical trial at Fletcher Allen. At first, he tried out a new drug and one already being used without knowing which was which.
"And now we've gone into the open label which means I know what I'm getting," said Blum.
And he only has two infusions a year versus injections every day.
"I've been free of injections for about two weeks. It's awesome," said Blum.
Blum's clinical trial is one of six happening in Burlington. Applebee says in one trial, they are seeing patients improve.
"For example, a patient will need a cane to walk from the lobby of the hospital to radiology. And after being infused with this medication she needed no assistance device for a period of time because her walking improved and her MRI improved. That's super reassuring because it’s the first time we've seen a reversal of symptoms," said Applebee.
They haven't figured out the dose or frequency yet that's the next step
"After a few months she started to get slightly worse again. But still, it was a step in the right direction just to see some improvement," said Applebee.
"I was amazed when I found out there was as comprehensive a program in Vermont as there is for MS and certainly Dr. Applebee reputation extends well beyond Vermont. She's one of the best in her field. It's awesome," said Blum.
He hopes the advances being made at Fletcher Allen will help keep him out on the golf course.
"I learned how to play the game carrying a bag and that's the way I do it and I'll do it til I physically can't," said Blum.
Applebee says it's that kind of determination that inspires her.
"I do think there will be a day that we can stop it and it will be in my life," she said.
Applebee says that it is difficult to get people to specialize in MS because fellowships are not funded.
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