5 Canadian innovations that could change the face of global health care

On Monday, Grand Challenges Canada poured $10.9 million in seed money funding to 102 ideas scientists are working on in health care innovation.
They were mystery diseases that had stumped doctors for years - adults with strange symptoms and children with neurological problems, mental slowness or muscles too weak to let them stand. Now scientists say they were able to crack a quarter of these cases by decoding the patients' genes. Getty Images

TORONTO – A cell phone app that can help detect breast cancer, a quick bedside test for diagnosing bronchitis, and even a probiotic-packed yogurt that could get rid of environmental toxins in our bodies.

The lengthy list of made-in-Canada ideas paints a picture of a promising future in health care. On Thursday, Grand Challenges Canada poured $9.3 million in seed money to 83 ideas scientists are working on to improve global health care.

Grand Challenges Canada is funded by the federal government and its grant program helps pay for research in developing ways to treat diseases in the developing world.

READ MORE: 6 Canadian game-changing ideas for global health care

Fifty of the scientists that received funding are from Canada – they span from coast to coast, from Vancouver to Halifax, along with teams in Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, London and Hamilton.

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Dr. Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, told Global News that the $100,000 each project gets is meant to help confirm proof-of-concept.

“We’re looking for new out-of-the-box ideas that are better ways of doing things and have the potential for global impact. These grants are looking for bold, creative, innovative ideas,” Singer said.

Ultimately, the project findings could be implemented worldwide. Now in its third year, Grand Challenges Canada has funded some 400 projects so far.

Global News took a look at five made-in-Canada proposals:

A cell phone app to detect breast cancer

Breast cancer is a leading cause of death in women around the world. And the disease is a growing concern in developing countries where access to early diagnosis and limited treatment options leaves women at a disadvantage.

In some countries and low-income regions, mammogram-screening programs are nearly non-existent. Poor roads and infrastructure, no electricity and other problems are at play. Some women don’t realize they have breast cancer until it’s too late.

This is where University of Manitoba researchers in Winnipeg, along with their colleagues in China, Ireland, Nigeria, Portugal and South Africa, come in.

READ MORE: Breast cancer and genetics: Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy

The researchers say that they’re working on a cell phone app that can help detect breast cancer.

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Microwave imaging can pick up breast cancer lesions but the system is bulky and it needs highly-trained personnel to carry out the procedure. This time, the scientists are applying quantum physics to develop micro-sensors that are capable of operating at the same frequency range as large antennas but at a fraction of the size.

“They would cost significantly less than x-ray systems, could be carried in a backpack, would be safer to use and do not require trained professionals to carry out the procedure or interpret results,” lead researcher Dr. Stephen Pistorius said in his project synopsis.

“It won’t replace mammography but it will move screening out of urban or clinical settings into the rural community providing access to early detection, greater privacy and will save lives.”

A bedside test to detect bronchitis

In Hamilton, Ont., McMaster University researchers are using their grant money to see if their paper-based test to check for bronchitis could eliminate the need for sending samples to the lab.

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It’s a simple diagnostic test – Grand Challenges dubs it as a litmus test – that could help doctors quickly check for bronchitis.

The researchers say they’ll print a protein onto a strip of ordinary paper. Patients then dip the paper into their phlegm and the resulting colour may help decipher if patients are infected.

“This frugal innovation we hope will change the way aerial diseases are managed globally, both in resource-poor and resource-high countries and in both children and adults,” lead researcher, Dr. Parameswaran Nair, says in his video outlining his project.

He’s a respirology professor and Canada Research Chair in Airway Inflammometry. Once the study’s out of Ontario, Nair hopes the next stops will be Brazil and India. Watch his video here.

Special yogurts with probiotics that offset environmental toxins in our food

Between 2006 and 2009 in Nairobi, Kenya, only 17 per cent of the total maize sampled and five per cent of the feed was fit for human and animal consumption. But the researchers at the University of Western Ontario want readers to keep in mind: locals in rural communities don’t have abundant resources – sometimes the tainted produce is what’s on their dinner tables at home.

Since 2004, Dr. Gregor Reid has been working on making yogurt formulated with bacteria that fends off harmful toxins and heals peoples’ bodies depending on their needs.

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READ MORE: What one woman in Gabon taught doctors about global obesity

In Tanzania, that meant creating a yogurt with probiotics that helped offset mercury and other metals found in fish the locals live off of. In Uganda, a bacteria strain was identified to help locals with digestion and any issues with their intestines.

Now, Reid is bringing his project to Kenya, where he says he hopes his yogurt’s probiotics could absorb the poison found in crops like maize, corn and peanuts. The yogurt’s bacteria binds to toxins in these specific foods, absorbs the poison and moves it out of the body. That way, consumers can keep eating these affordable staples without any sickness.

‘Lab on a chip’ technology placed in a diaper to save babies’ lives

An Indian start-up company headed by a scientist who studied at the University of Toronto and MIT is hoping a silk fabric strip could be what spares some babies’ lives.

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READ MORE: Sick Kids doctors mark Global Child Health Day with new initiative

Rotavirus, which causes severe diarrhea in babies, kills 500,000 children each year and causes millions of hospitalizations. What Dhananjaya Dendukuri hopes is that a fabric-based sensor inserted in disposable diapers could help parents detect the virus.

The strip of fabric is literally no longer than the size of a credit card – once stool samples are applied to the strip, it can detect any pathogens and turn colour within minutes, Dendukuri explained.

Watch his video here.

Testing for the onset of diabetes

Growing obesity rates have been paired with higher rates of diabetes and other chronic conditions. Right now, 346 million people have diabetes, according to the World Health Organization.

READ MORE: Quarter of heart attack patients weren’t tested for diabetes or high cholesterol: Canadian study

The problem is, it isn’t easy for doctors to detect insulin resistance, which comes before being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Blood glucose tests can if patients are already prediabetic or they have Type 2 diabetes.

Diagnosing insulin resistance is time-consuming and costly at about $3,000 per test. This is why Ottawa doctor Prakash Naidu is working on a low-cost blood test – it’d be between $3 and $6 per test – that would tell patients what their IR level is on a 1 to 100-point scale.

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A score of 30 or higher would warn patients that they’re at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, he explained to local reporters. Watch Naidu’s video here.