Health innovations from Edmonton and beyond in 2016

don-ivesonWhen it comes to health innovations, Edmonton has often led the way in Canada, and sometimes even the world. In fact, Mayor Don Iveson (pictured) announced plans earlier this year to re-brand Alberta’s capital as Canada’s health city, describing it as a “medical research powerhouse.” From stroke ambulances to three-parent babies, here are descriptions of Edmonton’s main health innovations of 2016, and several more from B.C. and beyond.

1. Stroke ambulance
With the arrival of our custom-made stroke ambulance this year, Edmonton became the envy of healthcare teams around Canada and the world. Local experts in mechanical engineering, ambulance design and neurology helped design the so-called “emergency room on wheels.”

The $3.3-million project has its own CT scanner, self-levelling technology and a full lab – making it the only ambulance like it on the planet.

The stroke ambulance is also unique in where it will go – to rural areas around Edmonton, where patients don’t have quick access to specialists. It allows paramedics, a neurology resident and a CT technician to diagnose a stroke within minutes and administer a clot-busting drug on the spot. That means saving lives and preventing long-term disability.

“Every minute an artery is blocked to the brain, two million brain cells die off,” said Dr. Ashfaq Shuaib, director of the stroke program at the University of Alberta Hospital.

2. Thyroid in arm procedure
Edmonton surgeons became the first in the world this year to do an unusual procedure for head and neck cancer patients. They moved their thyroid gland to their arm.

The operation protects the delicate gland from harmful radiation during cancer treatment. Most head and neck cancer patients need radiation therapy, which damages or destroys the thyroid about 50 per cent of the time – leading to fatigue, weight gain, mental fogginess and potential life-threatening effects.

The coolest part is this isn’t a temporary solution – the thyroid stays in the patient’s forearm permanently, where it continues to function just fine.

“It’s sort of one of those things that when we started, we thought… ‘Why didn’t we do this a long time ago?’” laughed Dr. Jeffrey Harris, chief of head and neck surgery at the University of Alberta Hospital.

3. Antibacterial salt surfaces
Edmontonian Doug Olson isn’t a scientist, but he invented something that could save lives around the world. And it has one ingredient: salt.

Olson created a line of door handles, drawer pulls, toilet handles and bed rails made of 100 per cent salt. He paid for lab tests, teamed up with health professionals from the U of A, and showed his product can kill deadly superbugs like MRSA in about five minutes. That’s 20 times faster than copper and 70 times faster than stainless steel.

Olson came up with the idea after years of working in the meat industry, where salt is used to inhibit or prevent growth of pathogens like salmonella.

“I was taught that salt is used to preserve meat so I knew it kept the bacteria in check,” Olson explained. “I just didn’t know how fast or if it outright killed it.”

“It’s a phenomenal feeling to think that many lives could be at stake here.”

Beyond Edmonton, here are six groundbreaking medical breakthroughs of 2016 from B.C. and around the globe.

1. First three-parent baby
The world’s first baby with DNA from three people was born this year, thanks to a controversial technique. Scientists announced in the fall that the baby was born to Jordanian parents earlier in 2016.

The mother carries DNA that could have given her child Leigh syndrome, a severe and usually deadly neurological disorder. Scientists removed some of the mother’s DNA from an egg, and left the disease-causing DNA behind. The healthy DNA was slipped into a donor’s egg, which was then fertilized with the father’s sperm. As a result, the baby inherited DNA from both parents and the egg donor.

2. Successful Ebola vaccine
Final test results have confirmed that an experimental Ebola vaccine, developed by the Canadian government in a Winnipeg laboratory, is highly effective. The publication of those results is a major milestone that could help prevent the spread of Ebola outbreaks in the future.

3. AIDS ‘patient zero’ story debunked
For more than three decades, a French-Canadian flight attendant was believed to be the source of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in North America. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine in 1984 dubbed Gaetan Dugas “patient zero” in the growing epidemic, suggesting that he brought the deadly virus to this continent.

But a new study published in 2016 debunked that theory by concluding that Dugas’ blood sample contained a strain of HIV that had already been circulating within U.S. borders, as far back as 1970. The scientific exoneration of Dugas came 32 years after his death.

4. ALS gene discovery
Some criticized the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge craze as just another social media fad, but researchers announced this year that money raised from the campaign helped fund the discovery of a new gene linked to the disease.

The gene, identified as NEK1, has been found to contribute to hereditary Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The gene is associated with three per cent of all ALS cases, according to the ALS Association.

5. Gene mutation linked to multiple sclerosis
Scientists at the University of British Columbia found a genetic link to multiple sclerosis, marking a breakthrough that could one day allow doctors to identify and treat the disease before symptoms surface.

The direct genetic link, which was long thought not to exist, was identified in two Canadian families where several members have a fast-acting form of MS that cannot be treated. Seven out of ten members of those families who carried the mutation developed the disease.

6. Study pinpoints genetic conditions behind intellectual disabilities
With a genetic screening study, researchers in BC were able to identify the genetic underpinning of certain intellectual disabilities in children.

Researchers were able to diagnose 68 per cent of the 41 families in the study with a precise, underlying genetic condition, and offer targeted treatments to the children in more than 40 per cent of cases. One parent called the discovery a life-saver.