Health File


A Jigsaw Puzzle

Health and medical news seems to fly at us from every direction these days—rising disease rates; new tests or treatments; new risks; medical breakthroughs; the state of our health care system; a seemingly unending series of reports on new research and health trends. Health care today is like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle—many interconnected pieces need to link up to build the complete picture.

Health File is here to help put some of those pieces together so we can see the picture better. We’ll highlight news about health conditions affecting Canadians, new trends, Canadian and international research and medical breakthroughs, developments in the many agencies and government departments involved in public health. Here are some new pieces to fit into the puzzle.

One big bump in the roadblock to developing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease is that the only definitive diagnosis comes after death, when brain tissue can be examined in an autopsy for signature amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Although treatment early on in the disease process helps prolong brain function, the disease is often diagnosed in the later stages because there’s no test to aid diagnosis, or to help determine which treatments work best.

Doctors often deliver a diagnosis of “possible or probable” Alzheimer’s, based on changes in memory, behaviour, personality, and brain function and after other possible causes have been eliminated. The Alzheimer Society of Canada ( says the diagnosis is right 80 to 90 per cent of the time. A research team at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Research Institute has come up with a test that should improve those odds.

“Our clinical study shows that a non-invasive blood test…may be successfully used to diagnose Alzheimer’s at an early stage and differentiate it from other types of dementia,” Dr. Vassilios Papadopoulos, institute director, said at the announcement. Researchers found they could promote production of the hormone DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) through oxidation of a small blood sample from people without Alzheimer’s disease. However, no increase in DHEA results in oxidation of blood from Alzheimer’s patients.

The test could be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s in early stages, and monitor effect of therapies on evolution of the disease, he said. No word yet on when the test will be available to help the half a million Canadians now suffering from the disease.

There was much ballyhoo this spring when a U.S. research team, funded by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers and a program of the federal Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food program, announced it had identified 54 compounds in Canadian maple syrup that have potential health benefits. In laboratory studies these compounds acted as anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory agents. Initial studies also suggest that maple compounds may inhibit enzymes relevant in Type 2 diabetes management.

How to use this information?  Certainly no one should glug gallons of maple syrup hoping to prevent or treat disease. The healthful compounds need to be identified, then isolated and standardized in pharmaceutical form, then tested through clinical trials in a procedure that takes years. However, while we await developments, some may decide to use maple syrup instead of sweeteners with less nutritive value and no health benefits.

Researchers at McMaster University’s Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute have found a way to make blood from a person’s own skin. It’s good news for anyone needing blood transfusions during surgery or other treatments, but particularly good news for those with leukemia who need bone marrow transplants.

In healthy people, specialized cells in bone marrow produce blood and immune system white cells, a process disrupted by cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Treatment now involves chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the patient’s stem cells, which are replaced with cells either from a bone marrow donor or from the patient’s own stem cells. Both carry dangers. Finding a match for a bone marrow transplant is difficult and can take a very long time, and the transplant might be rejected. The patient’s own stem cells may carry the same mutation that caused the cancer in the first place. But there’s no worry of rejection of blood made from a patient’s own skin cells, and the mutation in blood cells that results in leukemia is not found in the skin, so blood made from the cells should be healthy.

Clinical trials are expected to begin in 2012 and if they pan out, this could revolutionize treatment of leukemia and lymphoma.

The Canadian Public Health Association has a new website,, on food safety for higher risk Canadians, including seniors and people undergoing cancer treatment. Information includes what foods to avoid and how to minimize risk of joining the 11 to 13 million Canadians afflicted each year by food-borne diseases.

Unsurprisingly, higher risk foods include raw and undercooked meat, fish, poultry, eggs and milk products. One bit of new advice in our green-conscious world: designate one reusable grocery bag for carrying raw meat so you don’t contaminate the fresh produce next time you shop. And oh—launder the bag frequently.

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