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Matters of Fact

Medical innovators

Canadian scientists and medical experts are major players in the global race to discover better treatments for COVID-19, including a vaccine. While we aren't quite there yet, here's a sampling of made-in-Canada medical breakthroughs.

1921 Frederick Banting and Charles Best, working under the direction of J.J.R. Macleod and with refinement by James Collip, develop insulin as a treatment for diabetes.[1] Banting and Macleod are recognized with a Nobel Prize – the first for Canadian scientists.[2]
1930 Frederick Fitzgerald Tisdall, Theodore G.H. Drake and Alan Brown blend minerals, vitamins and cooked starches to create the baby food Pablum. Royalties generated by global sales support research at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children for decades afterwards.[3]
1934 Wilder Penfield founds the Montreal Neurological Institute, where he pioneers the “Montreal Procedure” to treat epilepsy. Remember the “I smell burnt toast” Heritage Minute? Penfield’s work revolutionized brain surgery.[4]
1950 Electrical engineer John Alexander Hopps invents the first external purpose-built cardiac pacemaker. It transmits electrical impulses to the heart’s atria through a bipolar catheter electrode.[5] Every year, more than 10,000 Canadians get a pacemaker.[6]
1961 James Till and Ernest McCulloch discover transplantable stem cells, a scientific breakthrough that gives birth to the field of stem cell science. See “Canadian contributions to stem cell research” for more on this subject.
1980 Albert Aguayo demonstrates that, under the right conditions, nerve fibres and central nervous system function can recover after damage in adult mammals.[7] Today, neuroregeneration research is targeting Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and more.[8]

Canadian contributions to stem cell research

Stem cells aren’t specialized themselves, but they have the potential to develop into specialized tissue or organ cells. They also have an important repair function in many tissues, dividing to replace damaged cells.[9]

Following up on their discovery of transplantable stem cells in 1961, Canadians James Till and Ernest McCulloch teamed up with Lou Siminovitch and together proved that adult bone marrow cells could self-renew.[10] Since then, researchers in Canada have continued to make dramatic strides towards expanding our understanding of stem cells.

Canadians discovered human neural stem cells (1992), cancer stem cells (1994), retinal stem cells (2000), skin-derived stem cells (2001) and breast stem cells (2006). Researchers here advanced blood stem cell expansion (2002) and muscle stem cell regeneration (2003).[11] In 2009, they found a virus-free way to transform specialized human cells into cells that are “pluripotent” (able to become any other specialized cell) like embryonic stem cells.[12] And in 2013, they disarmed the BMI-1 gene, which regulates colorectal cancer stem cells.[13]

The promise of stem cells is vast for treating damage after spinal cord injuries, strokes and heart attacks, helping people with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological illnesses, producing insulin for those with diabetes, and replacing diseased or injured tissues and organs.[14] In this rapidly evolving field, the next great breakthrough may well emerge from a Canadian lab.


Canadian advancements in medical technology

The Spartan Cube is a DNA analyzer that fits in one hand and can tell from a cheek swab if you have strep throat, a foodborne infection and more.[15] BresoDx is a cordless, simply designed device you can use at home to find out if you have sleep apnea.[16] The affordable XLV digital mammography machine is expected to give women in developing countries better access to breast cancer screening.[17] These are just a few recent Canadian inventions in the field of medical technology. About 1,500 medtech businesses operate in Canada, employing about 35,000 people[18] and participating in Canada’s US$6.7 billion medical device market.[19]

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[1] bantinghousenhsc.wordpress.com/2015/12/06/banting-and-best-and-macleod-and-collip  

[4] https://www.mcgill.ca/about/history/penfield

[5] www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3232561

[6] fhs.mcmaster.ca/main/news/news_archives/pace.htm 

[7] cdnmedhall.org/inductees/dr-albert-aguayo

[8] www.mayo.edu/research/centers-programs/center-regenerative-medicine/focus-areas/neuroregeneration 

[9] stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/1.htm