Canadians are known for hockey, maple syrup and poutine, but what about their contributions to furthering medicine? Turns out, Canada is responsible for handfuls of medical breakthroughs from Pablum to insulin and child-resistant medicine bottles.
“There are many examples of Canadian physicians who have really been successful in changing the way medicine is being practiced around the world,” Dr. Granger Avery, president of the Canadian Medical Association, said.
“I feel very confident in saying that Canadians have contributed significantly, not just to health here in Canada, but health in the world. We get caught up on the international scene but forget about the incredible contributions Canadians have made,” Lissa Foster, executive director of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, told Global News.
Avery and Foster took a walk down memory lane with Global News to look at key medical breakthroughs covered in Canadian fingerprints.
In the 1930s, three doctors – Brown Tisdall and Drake – created Pablum, the world’s first ready-to-use vitamin- and mineral-enriched baby cereal right out of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
“During the Great Depression, malnutrition was a great issue and this resolution was responsible for adequate nutrition for many hundreds of thousands of children,” Avery said.
“It’s still widely used and it was a game-changer because it created standards for infant nutrition. This was something guaranteed as healthy that mothers and families could rely upon,” Avery said.
Sir Frederick Banting is the Canadian icon behind insulin, what’s been dubbed one of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th century. It was in 1920 that Banting thought of developing the extract for Type 1 diabetes patients.
“It was a death sentence before insulin was used to treat diabetes. The discovery led to being awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. Banting became a world leader,” Avery said.
Now, insulin is used to help millions of people living with diabetes around the world.
Child-resistant medicine containers
A Windsor, Ont.-based doctor is behind the creation of the “palm and turn” medicine bottles you have stashed away at home.
Dr. Henri J. Breault was director of a new poison control centre at the hospital he worked at. This is where he saw kids constantly getting poisoned by medicine or other “hazardous products” around the home, especially Aspirin bottles.
Ultimately, his child-resistant containers became mandated by the Canadian government and in countries around the world.
“They say incidents of poisonings dropped by more than 90 per cent within a year so it’s very clearly had an impact,” Foster said.
Open heart surgery
In 1950, Dr. Wilfred Bigelow learned how to lower the body’s core temperature to a point that made open heart surgery safe. His open heart surgery research was applied on a person for the first time in 1953.
In the meantime, he worked on the world’s first pacemaker. It might’ve been much bigger than what’s on the market today (it was the size of a microwave), but it paved the way to revolutionizing heart surgery and changed the lives of millions of people with heart disease.
“The notion of being able to go into the heart at all for surgery was scary and frightening to begin with. It’s developed so far since then,” Foster said.
Cystic fibrosis is a common genetic disease affecting children and adults and its genes were discovered right out of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children by Dr. Lap-Chee Tsui.
His work has been heralded as one of the most significant breakthroughs in human genetics.
Transplantable stem cells
Canadians, Dr. James Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch, are also behind creating the first clonal method to identify stem cells and applied their technique to stem cell research – a major milestone in the scientific community.
It was in 1961 that the duo discovered transplantable stem cells at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto. Since then, stem cell research has made incredible strides.
“We completely take for granted that we understand what stem cells are and what they do. Now we’re understanding that we can grow human body parts – we would never have figured that out without understanding what stem cells are,” Foster said.
“It was a bit of a race at that time but Canadians were the first in the world to publish this discovery,” she said.
Discovering T-cell receptors in cancer research
Cancer research has made major strides – it’s a cause Canadian scientist Dr. Tak Wah Mak dedicated his career to. In 1984, he discovered T-cell receptors, their structure, function and how they’re produced. This was a major step in cancer immunology.
By 2013, he was behind a cancer “sharp-shooter” drug that he hoped would hold the key to halting the growth of several cancers.
“I cannot promise you it will work because in advanced human cancer, there are many other questions we do not have answers to. But we promise you, this is the beginning,” an emotional Mak told reporters at the time.
“There will be another drug that we will be filing for next year. And next year and next year until we get this done,” he said, choking back tears. Mak’s wife died of breast cancer in 1998.
HAART therapy treatment as HIV prevention
Scientists led by Dr. Julio Montaner out of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS have spent decades studying the disease. There, B.C. has become a global success story in combatting HIV/AIDS and it’s because of HAART, or highly active antiretroviral therapy.
It’s a cocktail of three drugs – taken daily – first implemented in 1996 to stop HIV from progressing into AIDS and to extend life expectancy and reduce HIV-related deaths.
B.C. became the “testing ground” for treatment as prevention. By 2014, the made-in-Canada plan was formally adopted by the United Nations as the global authority’s strategy in its fight against HIV/AIDS.
“He’s managed to take HIV from a death sentence to something that’s a chronic disease, maybe even a cure. That’s an amazing step forward,” Avery said.