Chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency is a novel hypothesis, proposed for the first time by Dr Paolo Zamboni, to try to explain the elusive cause of multiple sclerosis (MS). Briefly, this hypothesis proposes that the autoimmune attack against oligodendrocytes and the demyelination process, hallmarks of MS pathology, are caused by an excessive deposition of iron around small veins in the brain. This hypothesis is proposed after having found that venous blood flow may be altered in MS patients and, attending to Dr Zamboni’s studies, that yugular and azigos veins show an increased frequency of stenosis compared to normal controls. This hypothesis has never been accepted for a number of reasons but what matters most to me are the consequences of the disregard with which the neurological community has received this hypothesis.
Nature Journal has recently published a paper about the power of social networks to movilize patients and its potential to divert funding to studies or procedures demanded by patients. The example to illustrate the power of social networks is Zamboni’s CCSVI. In Canada, the attention paid by the mainstream media to this condition and to Dr Zamboni has turned into many patients claiming for the treatment of their vein stenoses, a procedure called, not randomly, “the liberation procedure”. But not always new healers deserve and receive attention by the media. But the context with this story is perfect…for both mainstream media and patients.
Dr Zamboni’s wife suffers MS. He is a vascular surgeon, attending to his Pubmed profile, a reputed one in the field of varicose veins surgery, but he has now focused on trying to help his wife (and others) studying MS from his vascular surgeon perspective. That means he is an outsider. Someone not familiar for the “MS stablishment”. He proposes a radically different approach in a pretty frequent and severe disease with huge pharma and national funding agencies investments, a growing number of neurologists, radiologists, biologists, immunologists, etc dedicated to it and an exponential increase in its research. And proposes a “liberation procedure” to something that nowadays has no cure… The perfect context for swindlers, mainstream media misunderstood headings, pharmaconspiracy theories, personal heroisms and the perfect environment for politicians. And that’s what we have… patients rallying for something not properly studied under the certainty that all the people involved in MS care, funding, research or market have something to hide in order to keep their positions and privileges.
Zamboni proposes an etiologic pathway that presents many unsolved questions with current evidences: it does not clarify the role of HLA genetics, the Epstein-Barr virus issues, the distance-to-the-equator gradient, the early involvement in many patients of the optic nerve, the oligoclonal bands at the beginning of the disease, the selective attack to oligodendrocytes (and not to astrocytes, neurons, microglia…) and many more. But we may assume that it’s a valid hypothesis. Then Zamboni should clarify in large epidemiologic studies what he sees in small ones, he should also answer scientifically to those who have published against his theory , he would have to integrate his findings to those that already have been accepted in MS pathogenesis theories, his findings would need to be validated in a different cohort and, after that, design one or more trials clearly showing the benefits of his procedure. That is the only approach possible. Until then, being so sorry for patients, what he does should be considered iatrogenesis.
Alternative hypotheses, those that challenge a paradigm, a stablished way of thinking and doing things in any science field usually are either believed or mocked. Believed is the appropriate word because when an hypothesis leaves the field of speculation to become a truth, an absolute, peer-reviewed, well-stablished, replicated truth is neither mocked nor believed anymore. Is just a fact. Something to include in guidelines and textbooks.
Science history is full of left aside hypothesis, dead-end streets and beautiful, logic, coherent explanations never demonstrated. And that’s why science is so often unbearably slow. The process, to be fair and, at last, useful, needs to be that slow. That’s something science journalists with big sounding headings and patients with big problems don’t understand sometimes.
Before the internet era it was quite easy to condemn to oblivion those ideas that did not fit the stablished standards. Those ideas wrongly left aside because they challenged the stablished ones were always able to arise and finally prevail. The misleading, wrong or even malicious ideas were properly forgotten. But now anyone with a favorable context (such as Zamboni’s) can spread challenging ideas, regardless of being true, untrue, good or fatal. Before, we had leaders in opinion, academic hierarchies. Now we have trends and impact factors. Now,unvalidated (but revolutionary and “liberative”) proposals are available to anyone. More, they may be, though incorrect or insufficient, published in good science journals because they increase their impact factors (remember the chronic fatigue syndrome issue in Science). Experts and academy have several problems when spreading ideas, mostly with the revolutionary ones or those that challenge the ideas of the stablished experts. They are not well organized, are not fully open and don’t communicate with their patient communities properly. That means that general public, people, patients, etc, without any filter, are scientifically abandoned in the internet to the will of those with powerful and attractive (but false) ideas or to those with personal or monetary interests but bold and shameless enough to mobilize patients’ organizations and appear on TV selling their own thing.
So, in my opinion, we need to get two conclusions from the CCSVI experience (an others, the most important the mumps-measles-rubella vaccine controversy, that lead to disease outbreaks). First, that we, doctors, need to communicate better not only in private but also in those places where people go to gather information by themselves (internet, media, etc). If not, others will and that’s not desirable for neither us nor patients. And second, the only way to get treatments approved is the (unfortunately damn slow) way of science and more science. An example: check how long took to natalizumab to get approved… So, Zamboni, keep working that hard and shut our mouths up.