Looking back, 2016 was clearly the year of the Zika virus.
The epidemic began with a mysterious cluster of microcephaly cases in northeastern Brazil, and by February the World Health Organization had declared a world health emergency. There’s still much that remains unknown.
It was also the year of CRISPR, a revolutionary gene-editing tool that has transformed biomedical research around the world, even as a fierce patent war rages over who discovered it. We’re expecting a decision on that early in the new year.
Here in Canada, we saw public health officials grappling with how to control the spread of the highly addictive opioid fentanyl. Especially hard hit was British Columbia, where overdose deaths skyrocketed and the province declared a public health emergency, but the drug appeared on streets right across the country. Now there are concerns that the elephant tranquilizer carfentanil will do the same.
Then there was the bitter war between Ottawa and the provinces over the future of healthcare funding in this country. That dispute will certainly continue in 2017.
This week we decided to try something a little different. We asked our CBC Health colleagues to highlight a story they worked on in 2016. We hope you’ll enjoy a look back at the year’s health and medical science stories through their eyes.
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No scalpel, no drill
Kas Roussy, reporter
The procedure was touted as state-of-the-art “scalpel free brain surgery.” The patient was Noreen Smith. She has “essential tremor,” a brain disorder that causes uncontrollable shaking, usually in the hands.
When we observed the procedure at Sunnybrook Hospital, I was impressed with the medical team. But what I remember the most was Noreen: how resilient and brave she was.
I will never forget the look of pure joy on her face when she realized she would now be able to sign, with a steady hand, her husband’s card for their upcoming 50th wedding anniversary.
Saving stroke patients
Vik Adhopia, reporter
In CBC’s health unit, we are reluctant ever to use the “B-word” as most new innovations build on years of existing science. But a new intervention, known as a thrombectomy, to treat people having a major ischemic stroke probably fits the rare designation of “breakthrough,” as it’s been shown to be effective in quickly clearing blood clots in the brain, preventing brain damage or even death.
I also have a personal connection to this story as my father had an ischemic stroke 20 years ago. Though he survived, he was left with partial paralysis as well as other emotional/personality changes. He’s never quite been the same person. As I interviewed a survivor of a massive stroke who had remarkable results from the procedure, I couldn’t help but think how many patients and their families might be spared the same heartbreak.
Protecting pedestrians, cyclists
Amina Zafar, online writer
After a minivan jumped the curb and struck and killed his wife in November 2014, David Stark had to adjust to his new role as mom and dad to three boys. When I spoke to him for this story, he told me the boys are only now “coming back up” after grief counselling.
With the case before the courts this year, I wanted to take a look at how Canada compares when it comes to road safety. Experts told me we have a long way to go.
Since the story appeared, the driver has been fined, and Stark was named “Torontonian of the Year” by CBC Toronto’s Metro Morning for his tireless advocacy for safer streets.
Cleaning up bad science
Marcy Cuttler, producer
This was a documentary about three people who’ve made it their life mission to expose fraudulent science. Fiona Godlee, Jeffrey Beall and Ivan Oransky live in different parts of the world. Each has put researchers, universities, hospitals and shady publications on notice. At times, it was dangerous for them. Lawsuits and other more ominous threats. But they’re united in trying to make science and scientists accountable.
Sexually transmitted infections and seniors
If you say the word ”sexy,” people are intrigued. Then add “senior” and they’ll likely cringe. In May, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported STIs in seniors have risen 70 per cent. For the television story, my producer found a U.S. public service announcement encouraging safe sex.
If you’re lucky enough to grow old, expectations change. I don’t know when, but at some point you become wise, feisty or active. Not adventurous, beautiful or god forbid, sexy. It may sound silly, but rising STI rates reminded me that seniors have the same wants and needs as everyone else. The mature thing to do? Get over it.
Cheaper version of pricey drug
Kelly Crowe, reporter
One of the most challenging subjects in medical journalism is the issue of drug prices. We often report on the high price of pharmaceuticals without being able to answer one key question: why is the price so high? Drug price information is locked inside a black box of confidentiality, protected both by industry and government regulators claiming the need to guard trade secrets.
So it was a window into the secretive world of drug pricing when I learned that a small Canadian drug company called Biolyse Pharma had offered to make an expensive prostate cancer drug for a fraction of the price (U.S. price $ 90 per pill; Biolyse price $ 3 per pill). It didn’t happen. But it was fascinating to see the recipe for the drug, the price for each ingredient, and an alternative model for drug manufacturing.
Teen mental health
Melanie Glanz, producer
As a producer in the health unit, I meet dozens if not hundreds of people a year. Some are high-profile scientists and many are doctors, but Gwyneth Richardson stands out. I interviewed the 16-year-old after new stats showed an alarming number of Canadian teenagers are experiencing depression and high levels of anxiety. Richardson has struggled with debilitating anxiety. But when I met her, she was extroverted and self-confident — not what I expected. It was an important reminder that anyone can be suffering, no matter how they appear to us.
Sticky questions about new sugar research
Before we go, we wanted to tell you about some sweet science that quickly turned sour this week.
A paper published in Annals of Internal Medicine on Monday criticized the scientific evidence used to make public health guidelines about reduced sugar intake. Immediately the New York Times pointed out that the study was funded by the food industry.
Three days later, Associated Press reported that the Mars chocolate company was breaking ranks with the rest of the industry, criticizing the study and admitting that people should eat less sugar.
The primary author was Canadian scientist Bradley Johnston who holds appointments at McMaster University, SickKids, and U of T. We wanted to ask him some questions about the study and its funding, but we have yet to hear back from him.
Thanks for reading! We’ll be back in the new year.
Wishing you and your loved ones a happy, healthy holidays!