At age 22, Amanda Calitri was shocked to learn that the tingling she felt was an indicator of multiple sclerosis (MS). When her doctor confirmed the diagnosis, she joined an estimated 100,000 Canadians living with the autoimmune disease. “All I knew about MS was that there was no cure,” recalls the resident of Hamilton, ON. She would quickly learn much more.

MS affects myelin, the protective sheath surrounding every nerve. Inflammation creates a disruption between the impulses carried from myelin to nerve fibres, which can damage the nerves themselves. As a result, patients may experience extreme fatigue, tingling, impaired sensation, and weakness. And, for reasons researchers don’t fully understand, Canada has the highest rate of MS in the world.

A life-changing diagnosis

At first, Calitri’s condition was stable so doctors took a wait-and-see approach before prescribing drug therapy. That changed when she suddenly lost some of her eyesight. “I didn’t realize vision loss was a symptom of an MS attack,” she recalls.

For four years, she took medicine via injections, but then stopped. “It became a quality of life issue. I’d wake up with flu-like muscle aches so bad I’d have to get into a very hot bath for relief,” she says. “And I’d be out of commission for a good part of every week. The side effects were 10 times worse than the MS symptoms. I was done with injectables.”

Calitri, who works in administration for a large automotive company, tried other medications, but their side effects were also debilitating. Then she read about a new advancement in MS treatment — a drug that could lead MS into remission with just two short rounds of infusions 12 months apart. This treatment has the potential to curtail MS progression.

New hope from a new drug

Calitri contacted her neurologist to say she wanted to try the new treatment. After the two treatment sessions she mentions, “I didn’t want to be on medication for the rest of my life. I recommend it 100 percent. I now have peace of mind. It feels good to know I have a chance of the disease not progressing at all. It has given me a brighter outlook, more than I would have with any other medication. I can enjoy my career and have a normal life.”

Dr. Virginia Devonshire has seen outcomes like Calitri’s firsthand as a neurologist and clinical assistant professor at the Department of Medicine at the University of British Columbia and NMO Clinic in Vancouver. “We have a lot more choices for MS now, and in the past 10 years, we’ve dramatically increased the number of therapeutic options available,” she says.

Dr. Devonshire points out that the new drug is unique. “If we can get in with this drug early, it almost resets the immune system,” she says. “Most therapies treat the inflammation and the autoimmune attack day by day. This one changes or alters the immune system on a more permanent basis and many patients may not need further treatment.”

Long-term effectiveness

With MS rates in Canada the highest in the Prairies, Saskatchewan neurologist Wendi Fitzpatrick, also a clinical assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, was happy to have a new treatment option available. Her province was one of the first to offer it.

“The majority of my patients are extremely pleased with their treatment decision,” she says. “Some have seen a definite improvement in their day-to-day functioning since receiving the treatment. For others, it has kept them stable. Many may only require the initial two infusions a year apart.”

Along with their long-term safety, the infusions dramatically reduce the number of MS relapses — a decrease of nearly 80 percent. “It has the ability to induce near-complete remission for many patients,” says Dr. Fitzpatrick. “That can be life-altering, allowing them to get on with their lives and not worry about their MS. It is a very exciting treatment."

“I now have peace of mind”, Amanda pictured at T.B. McQuesten Park in Hamilton, ON.
“I now have peace of mind”, Amanda pictured at T.B. McQuesten Park in Hamilton, ON.
“I now have peace of mind”, Amanda pictured at T.B. McQuesten Park in Hamilton, ON.
“I now have peace of mind”, Amanda pictured at T.B. McQuesten Park in Hamilton, ON.
“I now have peace of mind”, Amanda pictured at T.B. McQuesten Park in Hamilton, ON.