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Searching for the 'holy grail' in battle with brain disease

Professor Orla Hardiman has seen many breakthroughs over the course of her 30-year career, and she is confident that there will be many more to come.

It is a message of hope from the consultant neurologist who is based at Dublin's Beaumont Hospital.

She is one of the country's best known consultants thanks to her extensive efforts to improve services for patients with conditions like Motor Neurone Disease (MND).

"The big holy grail in neurological disease is to find treatments that will stop the course of disease, and then you want to find treatments that will reverse the disease," she said.

"I have been in neurology for 30 years now and when I look back over that, there have been massive advances.

"Over the course of the last 20 years particularly, in Multiple Sclerosis (MS) for example, we have had a massive explosion in research, and a huge development in terms of drugs now.

"So, if I look at young people now who are diagnosed with MS, I can say looking at them and being completely honest, 'this is not going to really mess up your life because we have brilliant treatments for you'."

The expert said that there are really good treatments for some forms of MS and there is huge hope for young people who are diagnosed with the condition.

"And we are not that far away from drugs for more progressive forms of MS. We won't be able to reverse people who are already very disabled from MS.

Confident

"But I am confident that young people who are diagnosed today or tomorrow or last year or the year before last, we have really good drugs for those people and we will be able to keep those people really well.

"I have no doubt that even the people with the more severe progressive forms of MS, that we don't have very good treatments for yet, we will have treatments for those people in the next five to ten years."

Professor Hardiman is an international authority on MND, a progressive neurological condition that attacks the motor neurones, or nerves, in the brain and spinal cord.

Many people gained an insight into the condition thanks to the former RTE sports broadcaster Colm Murray who died from MND on July 30 last year.

A massive 600,000 viewers watched the emotional documentary charting his battle with MND.

He was diagnosed with the condition on March 30, 2010 and took part in international trials which hope to find a cure for the debilitating illness.

A mum-of-four, Professor Hardiman said that the RTE presenter's honest and open approach to the disease was remarkable.

"Colm Murray was an exceptional man. He was referred to me by one of my colleagues who diagnosed him, and so I got to know Colm within a couple of months of his diagnosis," she said.

"He used his public profile in an incredibly generous and self-effacing way. He offered to do what he could with us to make people aware of the disease and also to allow us to build up our research programme.

"We have a big research programme into MND at Trinity. Colm was incredibly generous in agreeing to make a documentary about the disease and about his interaction with the disease and about the work that was going on both here and internationally.

"There is a huge amount of personal courage that's required to do that. And a huge generosity of spirit," she said.

The 55-year-old, who is originally from Donnybrook, grew up as one of five siblings. She went to UCD where she completed her medical training.

To do her specialist training, she emigrated to the States in 1986.

"I did my training in the Harvard hospitals in neurology," she said.

When she returned in 1991, she already had two children and another on the way.

PROGRAMME

"I came back as a Newman scholar in UCD. That was a programme that UCD had set up to attract people back who had a research orientation."

Just five years later, she was appointed as a consultant neurologist at Beaumont at the age of 36. At the time she was only the 11th consultant in the specialty to be appointed.

"One of the things I did quite early on was to get involved in a programme, or a campaign I suppose, to try and increase the recognition of the importance of neurology, and the poor services that were then available to people with a neurological disease."

She set up a number of clinics when she was appointed first, including a one-stop multidisciplinary MS clinic.

"The people who are most disenfranchised in terms of people I see are those who are not entitled either to a medical cards on the grounds of income, or to the long term illness card," she said.

She added that it is "not rational" as to who gets the long term illness card and who does not.

Meanwhile, there has been much debate about the extension of medical card eligibility. Health Minister Leo Varadkar recently indicated that he may walk away from the Government's plans to start issuing medical cards on the grounds of medical conditions.

He said the plan could result in nearly everyone having a medical card which is not be realistic.

However, Professor Hardiman said: "What we should be doing, is not saying that its impractical to give medical cards to everybody. We should be saying it's going to be very difficult and require a lot of change in the system, but this is where we need to start, because this is where we want to end.

"We want to see that everybody in Ireland should have access to free healthcare at source."

fdillon@herald.ie


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