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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.

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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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More Incredible Canadian medical discoveries

5. Fighting Obesity

Intrigued by the pounds smokers pack on after ditching cigarettes, a neuroscientist at Ottawa’s Carleton University claims to have found the section of the brain that nicotine targets to suppress appetite. Alfonso Abizaid, in collaboration with international researchers, found that when certain receptors in the hypothalamus are stimulated by nicotine, there’s a boost to the metabolism and hunger is ignored. Scientists are at work on a weight-loss drug that mimics the ingredient in nicotine that binds with these specific receptors.

“It will be a big deal for the drug company that figures it out first,” says Abizaid.

6. Fighting HIV/AIDS

Dr. Julio Montaner already knew the drug cocktail known as HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy) curbed HIV symptoms. After all, he helped develop it 15 years ago.

But when the data started rolling in, Montaner – today the director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS – was surprised: Transmission rates in British Columbia were dropping. In 1996 there were 800 new HIV cases; by 2011, only 250. Was HAART making patients less infectious? A study released last July confirmed that HIV-infected men and women undergoing the regime had a 95 percent lower risk of sexually transmitting the virus. In other words, HAART not only treats the disease, it slows its spread. For Montaner, this gives hope to the 33 million people currently struggling with HIV worldwide. “We now have the means to make a major dent in the epidemic on a global scale.” This advance in prevention of sickness has been one of the incredible Canadian medical discoveries that can have real impact worldwide.

7. Fighting Parkinson’s Disease

Researchers have long known that neurons communicate using chemicals called neurotransmitters. The common belief has been that each neuron can send only a single type of neurotransmitter – or “speak” one language. But new studies reveal some of our brain cells are bilingual. “They are essentially capable of communicating using more than one type of neurotransmitter,” says Louis-Eric Trudeau of the University of Montreal’s Department of Pharmacology, who made the discovery as part of a team that included scientists from McGill University and other international research centres. Dubbed “co-transmission,” this finding has real-world applications. Parkinson’s disease, for example, is caused in part by the malfunction of neurons previously believed to transmit only dopamine. But Trudeau has shown these neurons also secrete glutamate. Understanding the behaviour of this second neurotransmitter in Parkinson sufferers could lead to better-targeted medications for those with the disease.

8. Fighting Blood Type Mismatches

You’ve survived a major car accident and are rushed to the ER unconscious, having lost a lot of blood. You need a transfusion stat, but doctors don’t know your blood type, and a mismatch will provoke an immune reaction that could kill you. What if there was a way to conceal mismatched blood from the immune system?

Scientists at McGill University and the University of Montreal have created just such an “immunocamouflage” technique. The trick is to cloak incompatible blood cells in a multi-layered polymer shell, thus hiding them from attack by the antibody. So far the method has been tested only on mice, but doctors are hopeful that if future trials go well, we could be seeing a “universal” blood product – and the end of blood typing – in as little as five years.

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Breakthrough Canadian medical discoveries

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. It’s exciting to imagine how these kinds of Canadian medical breakthroughs might improve millions of lives.

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.”