12 Medical Breakthroughs of the Year

All hail Canada’s most clever, most unexpected and most significant advances of the year, from mind-reading prosthetic arms to fighting malaria with dirty socks.

By Lia Grainger Reader's Digest Canada, January 2012
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9. Fighting Malaria

A 30-year-old Kenyan scientist has found an unlikely inspiration for a powerful new antimalaria weapon: dirty socks. "Leg emanations are caught in the fabric," explains Fredros Okumu, a researcher at the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania and the recipient of a $400,000 Canadian grant. Okumu has designed mosquito-killing traps that use the rancid smell of human feet, collected on sock pads worn by local soccer players, as bait.

Born in a rural village, Okumu has lost family members to malaria, which kills over 780,000 people every year. The hope is that, if used in tandem with mosquito nets and insect repellents, his odour-baited traps will dramatically reduce the number of mosquito bites, and thus the risk of transmission.


10. Fighting Alzheimer's Disease

As her mother's memory loss worsened, Fiona Johnson waited two years for doctors to confirm what she had long suspected. "I understand Alzheimer's is not the easiest thing to diagnose," says the 41-year-old Victoria resident, "but I found it really frustrating."

Medical professionals share her frustration. "We've searched high and low for this," says Vassilios Papadopoulos, referring to a simple, effective test to identify the devastating form of degenerative dementia that affects roughly half a million Canadians. Symptoms appear obvious, but the only way to be absolutely sure, says the director of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, is through a post-mortem analysis of brain tissue.

Yet it was during those post-mortems that Papadopoulos discovered what he was looking for. He found that in healthy patients, a brain hormone called DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) could be produced in the blood through the chemical process of oxidization. Yet in the blood of Alzheimer's sufferers, oxidization produced no DHEA above levels already present in the body. In his trial group — 86 patients — the DHEA test correctly predicted Alzheimer's every single time.

Papadopoulos points out that while numerous therapies targeting the underlying development of Alzheimer's disease are in clinical trials, the implementation of these therapies is dependent on a reliable diagnosis. He's hoping that if his results can be repeated in larger trials, the test will be available to the public in the next couple of years.


11. Fighting Physical Impairment

Karen Valley was born missing her left arm below the elbow. At three months she was fitted with her first artificial limb. At 17 months she received her first functional prosthesis, and at ten was one of the first children in Ottawa to be fitted with a myoelectric arm — a limb that translates electrical impulses from skin contact into movement.

Today, at 39, Valley is the director of The War Amps National Amputee Centre. She still favours her myoelectric arm, in part because prosthetic technology hasn't progressed much since she got the limb in 1982. "The question in prosthetics is always, 'What's next?'" says Valley.

Queen's University post-doctoral fellow Jason Gallivan and University of Western Ontario (UWO) psychology professor Jody Culham think they have the answer. "We call it 'predictive brain activity,'" says Culham. You might also call it mind reading. Over the course of a year, the two colleagues, who work at UWO's Centre for the Brain and Mind, scanned the brains of human test subjects as they performed distinct hand movements. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Gallivan and Culham were able to predict which actions the subjects intended to perform (pictured below, with images showing the subject's point of view).

A practical application is likely many years away, but Valley can't help but get excited. "It could allow for more natural movement, get rid of the delay between command and response and improve the chances that the amputee makes good use of the prosthesis," she says.


12. Fighting Cancer

In 2007 Belinda Smith's doctor revealed that the small bump on her nose was an egg-shaped tumour lurking close to her brain. The treatment would be immediate surgery followed by six weeks of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. "There was never really a choice," says the 45-year-old Halifax woman. "It was either do this or die."

The surgery was agonizing, and the rounds of radiation and chemotherapy drugs wreaked havoc on her body. Smith lost her sense of smell, some hearing in one ear and, temporarily, the use of her salivary glands. As well, her nose was surgically reconstructed and her face was covered in burns for months. "It was the worst experience of my life," says Smith.

Such treatments may become less taxing, thanks to scientists at the Ontario Cancer Institute at Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital. By blocking an enzyme known as "UROD," researchers Emma Ito and Dr. Fei-Fei Liu discovered that the damage to cancer cells can be amplified. "Radiation and chemo work, in part, by overmanufacturing free radicals in cancer cells," say the researchers. Because UROD regulates the levels of some of these free radicals, blocking the enzyme might amp up their production to toxic levels and destroy the tumour from within.

A clinical application is at least ten years away, and Liu and Ito don't believe the new method will eliminate the need for traditional cancer therapies, but it might result in lower doses of radiation.

For Smith, whose cancer treatment is ongoing, this would be good news. "To lessen the pain for future patients would be wonderful."

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