B.C. health research resonated in 2015

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      Curiosity can lead to intriguing insights. In our year-end issue, here are five B.C.–based stories from 2015 that elevated our understanding of various health issues.

      Bacteria and asthma

      Microbiologist Brett Finlay led a study showing that infants are far less likely to develop asthma if they have four different bacteria in their gut before they’re three months old.

      This research was published in Science Translational Medicine in September and focused on Faecalibacterium, Lachnospira, Veillonella, and Rothia.

      Finlay, UBC’s Peter Wall distinguished professor at the Michael Smith Laboratories, has zeroed in on the links between autoimmune diseases and the trillions of bacteria inside the human digestive system.

      “This research supports the hygiene hypothesis that we’re making our environment too clean,” Finlay said in a UBC news release. “It shows that gut bacteria play a role in asthma, but it is early in life when the baby’s immune system is being established.”

      Malaria versus cancer

      In October, researchers at UBC, Vancouver Coastal Health, the B.C. Cancer Agency, and the University of Copenhagen announced the discovery of a protein, VAR2CSA, that could halt cancer. It comes from a mosquito-borne parasite that causes malaria.

      “When my colleagues discovered how malaria uses VAR2CSA to embed itself in the placenta, we immediately saw its potential to deliver cancer drugs in a precise, controlled way to tumours,” Vancouver scientist and research leader Mads Daugaard said in a Vancouver Coastal Health news release.

      According to a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Cancer Cell, this technique was used to deliver a drug, and five of six mice were cured of breast cancer with no side effects. Researchers say they’re planning to develop a compound for clinical trials in humans.

      Swingle books

      This year, father and daughter Paul and Mari Swingle of the Vancouver-based Swingle Clinic both authored important and accessible books for parents about the functioning of the brain.

      Paul Swingle, a former psychology professor at the University of Ottawa, wrote When the ADHD Diagnosis Is Wrong: Understanding Other Factors That Affect Attention in Children. He makes the case that society is “becoming intolerant of normal children’s behavior and medicating them because we prefer not to deal with normal children”.

      His book argues that other causes, including fear triggered by abuse, can mimic the symptoms of ADHD, resulting in an incorrect diagnosis.

      Mari Swingle has a PhD in clinical psychology and is the author of i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media Are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species. Relying on research results from electroencephalography testing, she investigates links between excessive use of digital devices and learning disabilities, conduct disorders, and behavioural problems.

      Owen Smith ruling

      The Supreme Court of Canada delivered a landmark ruling in June that a federal ban on consuming cannabis extracts is unconstitutional. That’s because it flew in the face of the charter right to “liberty of the person”.

      The ruling involving a Victoria man, Owen Smith, triggered discussion in the media about the potential benefits of one nonpsychoactive extract, cannabidiol, in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder, gastrointestinal problems, and Dravet syndrome, a rare childhood neurological condition.

      Jail costs

      SFU health-sciences researcher Julian Somers headed a team that studied, over five years, more than 300 B.C. criminal offenders who were frequently in contact with public agencies.

      Those sentenced to prison ended up using $247,000 worth of public services, compared to $168,000 worth of public services accessed by those sentenced to supervision in the community. The research, which was released this month in Emerging Themes in Epidemiology, showed that 99 percent of these offenders had at least one mental disorder and more than 80 percent were substance users who had two or more mental disorders.

      “These empirical findings underscore the urgency of recent initiatives, which include supported housing, specialized justice programs, and the revitalization of Riverview Hospital as a centre for research and service delivery for individuals with complex co-occurring disorders,” Somers said in an SFU news release.