12 Incredible Canadian Medical Discoveries

These Canadian medical discoveries are clever, unexpected and significant advances, ranging from mind-reading prosthetic arms to fighting malaria with dirty socks.

By Lia Grainger Reader's Digest Canada, January 2012
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Amazing Canadian medical discoveries

1. Fighting Paralysis

Biomedical engineer Milos Popovic is generating a great deal of buzz. He is the man behind a new functional electrical stimulation (FES) therapy that applies low-intensity bursts of electricity to the arms and hands of quadriplegics. Spinal cord injuries impair the ability of the brain and spinal cord to tell limbs what to do; this procedure reprograms the nervous system so it can produce commands that regulate muscle movements, says Popovic, a professor at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto.

Participants in a study, who had injuries six months old or less, received the therapy one hour a day, five days a week. In just two months, test patients reported significant improvements in their ability to grasp and lift objects.


2. Fighting Melanoma

After noticing a mole on her ankle in 2000, Annette Cyr waited over a year before making an appointment with a dermatologist. "When I finally went to see her," says the Oakville, Ont., resident, 39 years old at the time, "she said, 'Oh, no, it's nothing.'" A biopsy proved that verdict wrong. The spot was melanoma — the deadliest of skin cancers.

Cyr's story is not unusual. Current methods for diagnosing melanoma can take weeks. But all this is changing. Scientists at the BC Cancer Agency have created a tool that can suss out a mole's malignancy in minutes, right in a GP's office. Dubbed the Verisante Aura (shown below), the device shines a ray of light at a mole or skin lesion and then uses a spectrometer to record an optical signal that can reveal compositional changes in the skin caused by cancer.

"This essentially extends the limits of human vision," says Dr. Harvey Lui, a clinical scientist at the agency, and one of the groundbreaking device's inventors.

Catching melanoma early can save lives. The American Cancer Society estimates a 97 percent, five-year survival rate for those treated for Stage IA melanoma. Those with stage IV? Fifteen to 20 per cent.

"That something so small can become so life threatening is a wake-up call," says Cyr, the founding director of the Melanoma Network of Canada and now cancer-free. "The sooner people get that call, the better."


3. Fighting Breast Cancer

With breast cancer, as with most treatable cancers, relapse is the big enemy. Surgery removes the tumour, and therapy, such as chemotherapy, eliminates remaining cancer cells.

However, one form of a breast cancer, ER+/LR- (estrogen receptor positive/lymph node negative), has a low risk of relapse. In fact, for most patients, surgery and hormonal therapy would be enough. Until now, doctors have had limited tools to identify a second, more aggressive form of ER+/LR- that requires chemotherapy to prevent relapse. But McGill University researchers, with their American counterparts, have identified a new 29-gene signature that can more accurately predict relapse (the existing test looks at only 21 genes).

"This has the potential to spare large numbers of women the health risks and complications associated with chemotherapy," says Alain Nepveu, a McGill molecular biologist. He is hopeful the test could reach the market in as little as three years. More Canadian medical discoveries like this can have a real impact on the future of the disease.


4. Fighting Digestive-Tract Infections

Antibiotics have always been the go-to method for beating back the dangerous digestive-tract infection Clostridium difficile. A growing number of doctors think there's a better way: fecal transplants. The procedure involves taking healthy fecal matter from a donor, mixing it with a saline solution, then introducing it into the patient's digestive tract, where the good bacteria can re-establish itself. "Most of us in the infectious-disease community believe this works," says Dr. Susy Hota, a specialist with Toronto's University Health Network. "Now it's just a matter of proving it."

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