From powerful ideas to life-saving products

The University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry propels health science discoveries beyond the labs into life-changing solutions.

Here are three UAlberta health innovations to help people live fuller, healthier lives.

By Sasha Roeder Mah

Artwork by Natasia Designs

Preterm birth prediction

Preterm birth accounts for two-thirds of infant deaths in Canada and Alberta has the highest rate of preterm births in the country. While the cause of the majority of these preterm births is unknown, it is certain premature babies face health complications and are at higher risk of developing chronic health conditions later in life like learning disabilities, eyesight problems, mental health issues and high proclivity to develop other diseases later in life.

David Olson, U of A professor of obstetrics and gynecology and member of the Women and Children's Health Research Institute (WCHRI), developed a preterm delivery test that can predict if a woman will go into labour within seven days.

It's known that just prior to delivery, the fetal membrane attracts white blood cells from the mother's capillaries. His test involves putting a pregnant woman's white blood cells in the top of a filtered chamber, explained Olson, with an extract from a fetal membrane in the bottom. If the woman is about to deliver, there will be a flood of white blood cells moving from the top to the bottom of the chamber. The test correctly predicted the women who were going into labour 91 per cent of the time; those who were not, 78 per cent of the time.

This test could give valuable time to obstetricians to plan a treatment that delays the labour stage. The test is patented and Olson's team is currently working on ways to make sure it can be adapted for easy use in clinics.

The research has been funded by the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation and supporters of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women through the Women and Children's Health Research Institute (WCHRI). They have also received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research as well as international grants from China, Australia and the government of the United States.

Original story: Avenue Magazine

SMHeartCard to ensure life-saving medicine is close when heart attack strikes

There are two medicines anyone having a heart attack urgently needs: ASA (acetylsalicylic acid) and nitroglycerin. It turns out hardly anyone at risk actually carries these, so a team from the U of A set out to change that.

Oncology professor John Mackey teamed up with retired engineer colleague James Stewart to design the SMHeartCard, which features two enclosed containers. Easily accessed by flipping open a cap lid, the containers carry four 81-mg ASA pills and three nitroglycerin pills.

Mackey had the opportunity to test the container when a passenger on a flight he was on experienced chest pain.

"I reached into my pocket and opened the SMHeartCard I was carrying," he recalls.

He administered the four ASA pills and the first of the three nitroglycerin pills.

"After five minutes, the pain went from a seven to a five, so I administered the second nitroglycerin pill. When I administered the third one, the pain went away and he felt and looked fine."

The SMHeartCard is available online for $19.99. "Our hope is that everyone who needs one keeps it on them at all times."

Original story: Folio

Methods, kits and systems for treatment of metastatic papillary thyroid cancer

Metastatic papillary thyroid cancer (PTC) is an aggressive type of thyroid cancer that can easily and rapidly spread. Because of this, there is a need to identify high-risk individuals. Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry colleagues Raymond Lai, professor of laboratory medicine and pathology and Todd McMullen, associate professor of surgery, developed a method to identify these individuals using biomarkers and risk factors. Early screening will enable physicians to proactively identify, plan and optimize thyroid cancer treatment.

Lai and McMullen's work couldn't have begun without the groundwork laid by McMullen and Robert Burrell, chair of the U of A's Department of Biomedical Engineering, in 2012.

Using a grant from the University Hospital Foundation's Medical Research Competition (UHFMRC), the pair identified markers of disease progression in a variety of cancers and worked to develop, test and patent a device that could quickly and efficiently detect aggressive thyroid cancer in patients.

That initial research let to Lai and McMullen's development of methods for treating papillary thyroid cancer using Platelet Derived Growth Factor Receptor Alpha (PDGFRA) inhibitor.

Treatment of PTC typically requires a total thyroidectomy followed by radioactive iodine treatment to remove small deposits of residual tumor. More than 40 per cent of PTC patients exhibit some degree of resistance to adjuvant radioiodine therapy and these patients ultimately have higher rates of recurrent disease and a poorer prognosis. The PDGFRA inhibitor causes an increase in the sensitivity level of PTC cells to radioiodine treatment.