Clinical trial examines whether alternative therapies help sick kids

Greg Kennedy - 11 December 2013

Sunita Vohra

(Edmonton) Twelve-year-old Garret McComber takes pride in being a kind-hearted boy. He not only taught himself sign language so he could 'talk' to more people, he also loves to build things, from Lego to new wooden steps for his grandmother's back porch.

But he's got a fight on his hands at the moment - Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) - a cancer of white blood cells whose symptoms, before treatment, include weakness and fatigue; bone pain; fever; frequent infections and nosebleeds; shortness of breath; bleeding gums, and lumps caused by swollen lymph nodes.

Hailing from Fort St. John in northeastern B.C., his mother Melissa McComber regularly brings him to Edmonton for care. Along with some typical side effects of chemotherapy, Garret also suffers anxiety and nausea.

Now, children like Garret with painful illnesses are finding solace and relief through alternative therapies now being offered at no cost through a world-first clinical research trial now underway at the Stollery Children's Hospital that is being spreadheaded by Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry researcher Sunita Vohra, who is also a paediatrician with Alberta Health Services.

Children who have symptoms such as pain, anxiety, nausea and vomiting - and whose families choose to take part in the study - receive their choice of massage therapy, acupuncture, acupressure and Reiki (an energy therapy, like therapeutic touch), in addition to case-appropriate medical care at the Stollery.

The Pediatric Integrative Medicine Trial aims to evaluate the effectiveness and usefulness of these complementary therapies.

"This kind of work has never been done in a children's hospital anywhere in the world, to our knowledge," says Vohra. "Even though we have the very best care to offer, we still want to do more. It's that desire that motivates me and our team."

Says Garret's mother: "I love this program. Garret loves it, too. I've watched my kid go from total agony and in pain and worked right up - and then one of the acupressurists will come in - and 10 minutes later, this kid's almost asleep."

Adds Garret: "When my leg's in very bad pain, it's very helpful."

While medicines do exist for pain and anxiety, for example, sometimes patients don't want them because "what helps relieve your pain or anxiety might also make you fall asleep when your intention might be to be awake and pain-free, or awake without anxiety," says Vohra.

The four therapies under evaluation in the year-long study were selected because of their safety and positive risk-benefit ratio.

The study also represents a major shift in research direction and philosophy, she adds.

"We've known about patient-centred care for a long time," says Vohra. "The leap here is to patient-centred research - a critical transition. This really does take on that philosophy. We're saying: Let's start with the patient, with what they're asking for and are interested in, and then work with them to try and identify which therapies might be helpful to them.

"We've found that more than half of our patients already use complementary therapies. In pediatric oncology, for example, we know that many, many children with cancer are trying all kinds of different ways to support their health at a time that's very stressful to them. We asked ourselves: While they're in hospital, what else can we do to make them feel better?"

The Pediatric Integrative Medicine trial is funded by $750,000 from The Lotte and John Hecht Memorial Foundation of Vancouver, a non-profit body that backs the investigation and support of complementary and alternative medicine, particularly in the treatment of cancer.

Vohra is the founding Director of Canada's first academic pediatric integrative medicine program, Complementary and Alternative Research and Education (CARE), at the University of Alberta. In September, the Foundation awarded her the $250,000 Dr. Rogers Prize for Excellence in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the largest prize of its kind in North America.