Living Healthy - News

Facing our fears

By Carol Moreira

Many people fear things like public speaking or visiting the dentist. Often, those phobias can be treated with the help of a psychologist. Unfortunately, some people who could benefit from seeing a psychologist never make the appointment—“because of cost, accessibility and stigma,” says Dr. Darren Piercey, a professor of psychology at the University of New Brunswick, and founder and CEO of CyberPsyc Software Solutions.

CyberPsyc, based in Fredericton, has developed virtual reality software that may be able to help some of those people overcome their phobias—by exposing them to virtual versions of the things they fear most. The virtual scenarios can be employed with the help of a clinical psychologist, explored by a patient in conjunction with counselling, or used as a self-help tool.

The software explains the mechanics of anxiety and the fight-or-flight response to the user, then teaches relaxation techniques that he or she can apply while being exposed to a fear trigger. Users who are afraid of the dental office, for example, see and hear the equipment used by dentists, while those who fear public speaking see rows of attentive faces.

Piercey says dentists who have used the software have found that it increased some patients’ comfort levels and preparedness. “That reduces the number of no-shows and last-minute cancellations. If someone is anxious about visiting the dentist, the worst part of their day is anticipating the event,” Piercey says. He adds that research shows that combining therapy with virtual exposure to the fear stimulus is as effective as combining it with exposure to the real thing. He also notes that people are more likely to be willing to participate in the virtual, rather than the actual, experience.

New radiation clinic

By Sarah Metherall

A brand new radiation treatment clinic at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax will offer the latest in radiation treatment technology—resulting in shorter wait times for people living with cancer.

The James and Edna Claydon Radiation Treatment Clinic is home to three new linear accelerators, which deliver more focused radiation to the site of a patient’s cancer, protect the healthy surrounding tissue and help shorten treatment times.

The clinic was created with the help of donors to the QEII Foundation, including James and Edna Claydon, who donated $1.5 million. To date, a total of $4 million has been raised for the new clinic.

The new equipment’s faster treatment times will allow an additional 60 cancer patients a day to receive treatment at the QEII.

Breast Health Centre construction begins

Breast health advocate (and enthusiastic renovator) Susan McBride leads the charge on the  construction of the diagnostic imaging wing of the new Breast Health Centre at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.By Wendy Walters

Construction began in January on the new Breast Health Centre at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax—starting with renovations for a diagnostic imaging wing.

The completion of the wing, set for mid-2013, will see the relocation of diagnostic mammography from Halifax’s QEII Health Sciences Centre to the IWK. This will be the first of many clinics and departments that will come together to make a Breast Health Centre, giving patients the best care in one place—ensuring timely, integrated and coordinated breast health services and providing a patient-centred and inter-professional approach to care.

As a first step to consolidate breast health services, surgery was moved to the IWK in 2006. Since then, wait times have been reduced and satisfaction rates have improved. The IWK Breast Health Surgical Program now performs more than 500 surgeries each year, with annual clinic visits totalling 4,000.

The Breast Health Centre is a partnership between the IWK Health Centre and Capital Health made possible by the support of the QEII Foundation and the IWK Foundation.

As easy as breathing

By Carol Moreira

Picomole Instruments of Moncton is currently in the testing phase with a breath analysis device that the company hopes could detect cancer and other serious diseases in the volatile compounds found in exhaled breath.

The non-invasive tool could make diagnosis easy and prompt, cut costs and improve patient outcomes, says John Cormier, founder and CEO of Picomole Instruments, the creator of the product.

Cormier says the easy-to-use, portable device is similar to a breathalyzer that detects alcohol. It rapidly analyzes complex gas mixtures—such as exhaled breath—which contain patterns of bio-markers that may be linked to cancers and other life-threatening conditions. The technology can analyze hundreds of volatile compounds found in breath, at parts-per-billion levels.

“Nothing is easier than breathing,” Cormier says. “The device is seamless. No force is required to blow into it; even patients with severe pulmonary disease can use it.”

The device could be particularly useful in contexts in which people may be reluctant to disrobe and undergo a physical examination, he says. “The technology is a game-changer regarding how we approach diagnostics. It is acceptable to just about everyone.”

A person who tests positive for an illness after breathing into the device would, of course, require further examination, but those who test negative could be spared further medical investigations.

Cormier says it is likely that the device will be able to differentiate between cancers. “We know what the biomarkers are for numerous types of cancers, and we know what the analytical capability of our system is—which allows us to infer that we would have the ability to detect those specific types of cancers.” The company has completed a small pilot study on lung cancer and, encouraged by the results, will begin a large study this year.

Healthy haskaps

By Leslie Gallagher

Can a berry that’s relatively new to Atlantic Canada offer potential health benefits?

Haskap berries originate in northern Japan, where they’re often marketed as a key to eternal youth, but they have been gaining popularity in Atlantic Canada since LaHave Forests of Northfield, NS, began producing the berries in the spring of 2010.

Dr. Vasantha Rupasinghe, an associate professor at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture in Truro, NS, has compared three varieties of haskap berries (Borealis, Indigo Gem and Tundra) to partridgeberries, blackberries, wild blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and red table grapes and concluded that the haskap had the highest antioxidant values of all the fruit tested.

What does that mean? Free radicals in the body contribute to chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Substances with antioxidant properties can help to neutralize those free radicals and have been the subject of much scientific study since the 1990s.

Those studies have not shown antioxidant supplements to be beneficial in preventing diseases, but a report from the Harvard School of Public Health notes that “abundant evidence suggests that eating whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—all rich in networks of antioxidants and their helper molecules—provides protection against many of [the diseases] of aging.”

That’s a pretty good reason to eat your berries—and, in addition to their potentially healthful properties, haskap berries don’t taste like anything your doctor would prescribe.

“They are like a cross between a raspberry and a blueberry, with a hint of blackberry,” says Liam Tayler of LaHave Forests. Sounds yummy.

New hope for healing

By Carol Moreira

According to the International Working Group on the Diabetic Foot, someone in the world loses a lower leg due to diabetes every 20 seconds; a majority of those amputations have been preceded by ulcers.

“Thinking about amputation in this day and age as a form of treatment is shocking, almost abhorrent,” says Dr. Paul Gratzer, who is the co-founder (with Sean Margueratt) and chief executive of DeCell Technologies in Halifax, and himself a diabetic.

Diabetics are prone to ulcers because they may have restricted blood flow to some of the extremities, leading to a loss of sensation; a cut may become a chronic wound, or ulcer, that doesn’t heal. The median time of healing for an ulcer is approximately six months; ulcers that don’t heal may result in some form of amputation.

Physicians generally treat these wounds by cleaning and covering them with gauze, but it’s hoped that within two to three years, a product being developed by DeCell will help cure these wounds quickly and affordably.

“Diabetes is becoming an epidemic around the world,” says Dr. Gratzer, who did the research for this technology at Dalhousie University’s School of Biomedical Engineering. “We want to make sure patients get the best care they can from the start.”

The DeCell technology creates a patch of human skin, between one and four centimetres square, that is sterilized then fitted over the ulcer. It is also processed to remove the foreign cellular material that typically leads to rejection when skin grafts are used. This skin “scaffold” allows the patient’s own tissue to regenerate around and within it until the scaffold is replaced by the patient’s own cellular material.

One treatment can potentially heal an ulcer. Similar products are now available, but can cost more than $1,000. DeCell hopes to market its product in the $200 to $400 range. “We are hoping to bring about a new standard of care for front-line treatment.” The technology will also be used to help cure other wounds, including burns.

High-tech help for headache sufferers

By Suzanne Robicheau

At the first sign of a headache, most people head for the medicine cabinet. But an electronic headache diary developed by a research team lead by Drs. Patrick McGrath and Anna Huguet at Halifax’s IWK Health Centre now has subjects in a clinical trial reaching first for their mobile phones.

“Keeping a diary helps identify headache triggers,” says Dr. McGrath, a professor of psychology, pediatrics, and psychiatry at Dalhousie University, and integrated vice president of research at both the IWK and Capital District Health Authority in Halifax. “It’s important to track what’s going on around you on the days when you have headache pain and the days when you don’t.”

Of course, a regular pen-and-paper diary can be a helpful tool for those who suffer from recurrent headaches. The headache diary app, which works with the iPhone, has the advantage of convenience, and is easily customized to accommodate each individual’s needs. Patients in the trial record information such as when a headache happens, what they think may have triggered it, the intensity of the episode, the qualities of the headache, whether they have taken medication and how effective it has been. And there’s no danger of forgetting to make an entry each day; simply program the app and it will remind you.

Although the iPhone headache diary isn’t a substitute for medical treatment, it is a practical way for headache sufferers to manage their headaches by tracking when the headaches happen and identifying patterns.

“The more you know about your headaches, the more prepared you’ll be to get them under control,” says Dr. Huguet. “The iPhone headache diary provides some valuable strategies for coping with pain—like relaxation, distraction, sleeping—and also generates reports that can be shared with a doctor or neurologist.”

Most of the participants in the IWK trial are from Canada and the US, but there are people from other countries as well. “We know that with the use of this new technology we can reach a lot of people who may need help,” says Dr. Huguet, “and because our trial is remote, anyone in the world can participate.” Interested participants can find out more at crfh.ca/whi.