Road to Discovery

In the beginning....

There was a time in history when every ache and pain we felt was attributed to the gods. When the crops failed, a volcano erupted, the floods or the droughts came, or the locusts took over the land, it was always the gods at work again. They were mad about something. Some people felt there was nothing they could do about it, while some others, as history shows us, were willing to go to terrible lengths – even sacrificing other humans – in hopes of getting back in the gods’ favour.

Well, thankfully for all of us, those days are long gone. Today, as young people growing up in Canada – unlike so many people in poverty-stricken areas of the Third World – most of us enjoy good health, a warm bed, good food and nobody is dropping bombs on us. Most, though tragically not all of us, enjoy our years of growing and we look ahead to the day we become adults.

As young people, we are basically healthy, happy and looking to a bright future ahead of us.

But this was not the case even just five or six decades ago.

At the beginning of this century, our chances of surviving birth and childhood were not always the best. During the first 30 years of this century, the major causes of sickness and death in infants and children were infectious and nutritional diseases. There simply were no specific drugs to fight infections. Meningitis was almost always fatal. Various forms of streptococcal infections were widespread. Due to the lack of antibiotics, some forms of ear infections spread to the bone behind the ear, causing an infection called mastoiditis, which required surgery.

Rheumatic fever was another disease caused by infection and in those years before effective drugs were available, it caused heart damage in many young victims, damage that required heart surgery to correct.

Ever heard of tuberculosis?

Had it not been for its recent resurgence in some parts of the world, you might never have heard of the word tuberculosis or TB – earlier known as "consumption".

Yet, as recently as the 1950s, when some of your parents were born, hundreds of victims of this dread disease that struck the lungs, bone, kidneys and some other organs were still filling beds in sanatoriums, as they were called across Canada.

But like all these other diseases, TB was eventually conquered by one of the miracle drugs discovered in the late 1930s, that helped prevent potentially fatal complications of many infectious diseases. As scientific knowledge advanced, so did our understanding of the methods of spread of those common scourges – diseases like diphtheria, scarlet fever and whooping cough. The terrors of infectious disease lessened as new drugs such as sulfonamides, as well as vaccines and immunoglobulin, became available. Penicillin, the first antibiotic, changed everything, as did the introduction of vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus (lockjaw) and whooping cough.

Polio stalked the land

Have you ever heard of or seen an iron lung? Until the introduction of effective vaccines in the mid-1950s, hundreds of young people often suddenly, within hours, became paralysed and unable to breathe without the aid of an iron lung. The cause? Polio, also known as infantile paralysis. Most recovered, but were left with varying degrees of disability for life. With the introduction of vaccines, the incidence of polio dropped like a rock. Today, it is rare to hear of a new case of polio striking a person born in Canada who has been vaccinated.

The insulin miracle

Many of us know someone with diabetes who must take insulin. Did you know that this miracle substance was discovered by two famous Canadian scientists? They were Drs. Frederick Banting and Charles Best, and their discovery literally saved the lives of countless millions of people worldwide who would otherwise have died.

Not everyone with diabetes must take insulin but those who must – must.

Gone are "the good old days"

As young Canadians, you are growing up in a world that is vastly different from the world of not so very many years ago. Take the tie sometime to sit down with your parents, or better still a grandparent, and ask them about "the good old days".

Our elders often refer to their years of growing up as the good old days. In many ways they were: life was simpler – some people say happier – because there was less rush and pressure. But as outlined earlier, not everything was so rosy. Back in 1921, the infant mortality rate was extreme. One in 10 babies died at birth or in the first year. You had an 87 percent chance of living to the age of 15 and a 74 percent chance of making it to age 50. Today, the odds are 99 percent in your favour to reach age 15 and 95 percent to reach 50. Quite an improvement!

The constantly improving survival rates over those years were due to many factors, among them better sanitation, pasteurization of milk, cleaner drinking water, new drugs, vaccines, improved living conditions and, importantly, advances in medical treatments, diagnostic techniques, anesthetics and surgery.

Space age "eyes"

Up until the 1960s, only X-rays, which can be harmful if used excessively and in the higher doses that many machines of the time produced, were available to look inside the body. In some cases, this technique, however wondrous, could not provide all the information required to diagnose certain symptoms. As a result, exploratory surgery was sometimes the only alternative. Today, we have high-tech, space-age diagnostic body scanning machines such as computerized axial tomography (CAT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET).

Each, in its own unique way, provides doctors with a different type of window to look into almost any area of the body, even the brain, without drawing blood.

The PET scanner produces a series of coloured patterns which show the biochemical activity underway within the human brain. The scanner even shows which parts of the brain are working when we smell a flower, play a musical instrument, or struggle over a math problem. Where once surgery was often the only way to identify the cause of an internal problem, these new technologies – along with flexible fibre optics and laser devices – often eliminate the need for the surgeon’s scalpel.

We also have advanced heart monitoring equipment and sophisticated apparatuses for measuring electrical activity in the brain (the most complex of all computers) and elsewhere in the central nervous system.

Boost for babies

Enormous advances have been made in reducing the infant mortality rate. As mentioned earlier, only 70 years ago, one in every 10 infants died at birth or shortly afterward. Even when some of your parents were born around 1960, the infant death rate was 27 per thousand; today, it is about 6.8 per thousand.

This tremendous improvement, although spread over seven decades, is a result of many factors, ranging from improved care of mothers-to-be and their unborn babies to a vastly improved ability to identify high-risk pregnancies through revolutionary monitoring techniques. Today, doctors can "see" and monitor the status of the developing fetus growing in its mother’s womb. They can keep track of the fetus’ breathing and even yawning. They do it with ultrasound, a non-invasive technique first used to detect submarines in wartime. Today, doctors and nurses working in highly specialized hospital units are saving premature infants that could never be saved in the past.

An exciting time to be a scientist

In so very many ways, it is a vastly different world today than it was not so many years ago. In the field of medical science, new techniques and technologies have opened a vista to a new world of discovery. In fact, there was never a more exciting time to be a medical scientist.

From all this research will hopefully come newer and improved treatments for diseases that still baffle doctors – and perhaps during your lifetime maybe even cures, and most importantly, prevention. Of course, each of us must remember that many diseases are already largely preventable through proper lifestyles that include good nutrition that minimizes fat consumption, exercise, avoiding smoking, minimal alcohol consumption, monitoring our ongoing health through periodic visits to our doctor and learning how to manage stress – taking one day at a time and being optimistic.

Research: the compass for discovery

All of what has taken place over these years did not just happen. It has come about by careful observation and through medical research by scientists working in laboratories in universities, hospitals, and research institutes around the world and across our country. In fact, Canadian scientists are recognized worldwide for their achievements in many areas of medical research.

Biomedical research is the critical vehicle through which advances in the battle against human disease and suffering are being made. Improved early diagnosis and treatment will not only help reduce health-care costs but will contribute to increased years of independence and less institutionalization of older Canadians. And, in case you didn’t know, more and more Canadians are living longer today.

A nation with a strong research base in its universities and other institutions attracts and keeps the most brilliant scientists, who, as researchers and teachers, help train new generations of young scientists.

What’s the Medical Research Council

The Medical Research Council of Canada (MRC) is the major federal agency responsible for funding biomedical research. It has an annual budget of about $250 million, which is provided by Canadian taxpayers. Its prime overall objective is the improvement of the health of Canadians through the support of research in the health sciences and through the training of researchers.

MRC does not operate its own laboratories, but is responsible for supporting research and training in health sciences at universities, affiliated hospitals, and other institutions. The Council also provides advice about health research to the federal Minister of Health.

Each year, more than 3,000 researchers apply to MRC for funds to finance their research or training. Their applications are carefully considered by scientific review committees made up of experts in many health fields. The applications are assessed for their potential to reveal new knowledge and insights into the functioning of the human body in sickness and in health.

Ethical considerations in research have long been a major concern of the Medical Research Council. The guidelines contained in a booklet entitled "Guidelines on Research Involving Human Subjects", have been accepted as Canada’s national standards.

MRC, which may be expanding its role to cover the entire field of health research, is also strengthening its commitment to partnerships with industry in order to contribute to Canada’s economic prosperity through the application of new knowledge to the development of new technologies and products.

The National Health Research and Development Program (NHRDP) has a mission to support on national health issues related to health and well being, public health, and health care. It does this by funding a range of research activities. It supports the training and career development of researchers in health-related disciplines and one of its priorities is the development of female scientists. Through its funding of health research-oriented workshops, NHRDP promotes the distribution and sharing of research findings. NHRDP also seeks research proposals addressing health issues such as AIDS, family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and seniors’ independence.

How about these Canadian achievements!

Here are some examples of biomedical accomplishments made over the years by Canadian scientists funded in whole or in part by the Medical Research Council of Canada:

  • Dr. Michael Smith, of the University of British Columbia, won the 1993 Nobel prize in chemistry for developing a critical technique used in genetic engineering known as site-directed mutagenesis. According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, his discovery "revolutionized basic research and entirely changed researchers’ way of performing their experiments."
  • A scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto headed research efforts that led to the isolation and cloning of the gene responsible for Duchenne-Becker Muscular Dystrophy.
  • A team of researchers at Queen’s University has discovered why lung cancer is often resistant to drug treatment. They have identified a protein in lung cancer cells that makes cells immune to the drugs that would otherwise kill them.
  • The finding, which has attracted wide attention from the scientific community, could lead to more effective treatment for lung cancer.
  • A major breakthrough in our understanding of myotonic dystrophy, one of the world’s most common inherited neuromuscular diseases, has been made by a team at the University of Ottawa and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. The team, working in collaboration with an international group, located the site of the defective gene responsible for the disease.
  • Scientists at Dalhousie University have discovered that an enzyme known as 5-alpha reductase can shrink enlarged prostate glands. This discovery could mean that medication could replace surgery as the treatment for this condition which is common in older men.
  • Scientists at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children identified the defective gene responsible for Cystic Fibrosis and pinpointed the molecule that causes the disease in most patients.
  • Researchers at the University of Alberta have discovered the three-dimensional structure of the enzyme renin, a substance that regulates blood pressure. The finding could pave the way for the design of new drugs with fewer side effects to treat high blood pressure.
  • Improved treatment for Type II diabetics suffering from high blood pressure may result from research by scientists at the University of Sherbrooke. They have found evidence that may help explain the high blood pressure in patients with this type of diabetes, the most common form of the disease.
  • Discoveries by researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland could help chart a course for the development of methods of reducing the potentially lifelong damage from alcohol abuse from fetal development to adulthood. Their findings may also provide clues into how to manipulate the brain’s reward system, which is believed to play a key role in addiction risk, as well as in withdrawal symptoms from alcohol and drugs.
  • Scientists at the Hospital for Sick Children have uncovered a clue that could help provide greater understanding of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), a mysterious condition that claims the lives of up to 600 babies a year in Canada, usually between the ages of two and four months. They have discovered that certain cells in the lungs sense whether the lungs have enough oxygen. If the level is too low, the cells release a chemical that tells the body to breathe more deeply. SIDS is though to be caused by a failure of the breathing mechanism.
  • A group of McGill University researchers, in collaboration with an international team involving 13 institutions, has identified a gene responsible for the hereditary form of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The discovery holds promise of developing new therapies for the disease, which is almost always fatal. In the disease, scientifically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, large motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord begin to die off, leading to increasing muscle weakness and, eventually, total paralysis.
  • Scientists at Laval University introduced the use of hormone-like agents for the improved treatment of cancer of the prostate, the second most fatal form of cancer in men.
  • McMaster University scientists greatly improved our understanding of the role of platelets in the development of blood clots related to heart attacks. Platelets are tiny substances in the bloodstream that in normal function, help to produce clotting to stop bleeding when we cut ourselves.
  • McGill University scientists headed a research project that has isolated the gene believed responsible for allowing the body to fight off a host of infections including tuberculosis, salmonella, and leprosy. The discovery holds out the promise of finding new ways to counter such diseases. It raises the possibility of making use of sophisticated gene therapy to enhance the body’s disease-fighting powers.
  • An Ontario Cancer Institute researcher headed efforts that led to the cloning and sequencing of the gene for the T-cell receptor, an important component of the body’s defence system against disease.
  • Experiments important to the ground-based research of three MRC scientific teams were carried out aboard the space shuttle Discovery by Canadian astronaut Dr. Roberta Bondar. One experiment is related to the nervous system’s adaptation to weightlessness. A second involved a process used to separate biological materials such as bone marrow cells for cancer treatment. A third experiment involved studies of back pain, common among astronauts in space, but the findings could have benefits for Canadians here on earth since 80 percent suffer varying degrees of back problems at some point in life.
  • A University of Saskatchewan scientist developed and introduced the first Cobalt 60 radiation device in the world.
  • A University of Manitoba scientist coordinated studies that demonstrated the effectiveness of human growth hormone in increasing the height of children born with a growth hormone deficiency.
  • The same scientist, while at McGill University, discovered the human hormone prolactin and developed a blood test to identify patients who have tumours that release too much of the hormone. As a result, thousands of women and men with disorders of reproduction related to this hormone have been successfully treated.
  • Scientists at the University of Manitoba laid the foundation for eliminating Rh disease, an often fatal illness of newborn infants.
  • A University of Western Ontario scientist discovered vinblastine, an effective drug that kills cancer cells; it is now a frequently used drug in cancer chemotherapy around the world.
  • Queen’s University researchers discovered human natural killer cells, an essential component of the body’s defence system in aiding its ability to kill "foreign" cells.
  • The first heart pacemaker was developed by doctors at the University of Toronto.
  • The hormone calcitonin, essential to the metabolism of calcium in the body, was discovered by a University of British Columbia researcher and is now widely used in the treatment of bone disorders such as Paget’s Disease.
  • Pioneering brain surgery techniques for the treatment of epilepsy, movement disorders and tumours were developed at the Montreal Neurological Institute.

These are only a thumbnail sketch of some of the achievements of Canadian scientists.

As you progress through elementary school and prepare for high school and then community college or university, do you ever think of someday becoming a research scientist? You might say "never" because you have trouble with math or science or even because you are a female. Well, it so happens that many of today’s brightest scientists had their difficulties with those subjects and that more and more of today’s doctors and scientists are women. So much for those excuses!

Canada’s future health, both human and economic, hinges in an important way on bright young people choosing biomedical science as a career. So think about it and talk to your teachers. Read about scientific achievements being made by Canadians.

As you go through your science and health books wondering what possible importance that material could have, remember that the knowledge and information on those pages helped lead others before you to choose scientific careers.

Canada needs young biomedical scientists as it does other types of researchers in many fields. And, as we said, there was never a more exciting time to be a scientist!

Published in 1994 with the collaboration of the Medical Research Council of Canada