Urban Health & Wellbeing

Health care will be less invasive and more personalized

The new frontier of health sciences

Urban Health & Wellbeing

Health care will be less invasive and more personalized

In Canada, we’re living longer and healthier lives than ever. While Covid-19 offers a stark warning about complacency, contemporary life expectancy is aided by both modern drugs that prevent or treat illnesses and as a result of innovative diagnostic tools and procedures that have been developed for medical conditions that were a curse for previous generations.

Research at Ryerson that is leading to sophisticated approaches to detecting and treating diseases or managing pain are aimed at further improving our quality of life and longevity.

They can also contribute to the Canadian economy by reducing productivity that’s lost through sickness or poor health, delivering more efficient and cost-effective methods of treating diseases, and creating openings for startups to thrive here as a step towards expanding into global markets, where they can help improve the care — and lives — of an even greater number of people.

Making the medicine of science fiction a reality

There is a growing need in our healthcare system for diagnostic and therapeutic techniques that are less invasive yet more accurate, and with a lower cost compared with traditional methods.

For medical physics professor Jahan Tavakkoli, a solution lies in various applications of ultrasound — a field he is advancing as part of the Faculty of Science at Ryerson. His research spans a range of innovative approaches, including the use of high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) for the treatment of malignant solid tumors in cancer patients, as well as nerve ablation (destruction) and manipulation for pain management and anesthesia.

“Under proper imaging guidance and treatment monitoring, HIFU can be used effectively in a number of non- and minimally invasive surgical procedures,” says Tavakkoli.

two researchers in a lab
Jahan Tavakkoli in the iBEST lab with postdoctoral research staff, Dr. Elyas Shaswary

In fact, his work in developing applications of ultrasound in medicine and biology could have far-reaching implications.

“It could be beneficial in developed countries, as it provides a more efficient treatment modality with fewer side effects, but also in under-developed countries with limited resources, given it provides a cost-effective and simple solution for certain therapies and diagnostics,” Tavakkoli adds.

82.52 years
Projected life expectancy in Canada for 2020 (the number was 77.20 in 1990)

Another high-profile project for which Tavakkoli is the principal investigator is also at the cutting edge of science and technology. A collaboration between Ryerson and Toronto-based Tree of Knowledge International aims to develop a new nanotechnology-enhanced delivery method for medical cannabis.

The ultimate goal is to create treatments for a variety of medical conditions. Fellow physics professor Michael Kolios is co-principal investigator for the project.

“The nanocarriers we are developing, which will be coated with two different types of cannabinoid molecules, will be employed in targeted drug delivery applications using our proprietary therapeutic ultrasound technology to achieve a novel and effective method in treating cancerous tumours as well as pain,” Tavakkoli explained when the project was announced in July 2019.

What he’s talking about sounds like the far-out medicine of science fiction, except it’s happening today.

The number of microbial cells in the human gut than in the rest of the human body, totaling roughly 100 trillion microbes representing as many as 5,000 different species

Understanding — and treating — gut reactions

The human gut microbiome refers to the trillions of bacteria living in our digestive tracts to break down food we ingest and release important molecules in the process. Research shows that an abundance of health conditions are linked to unbalanced gut bacteria, including digestive, metabolic and mood disorders and autoimmune diseases; however, more work is needed to help scientists understand more fully their cause and effect relationships.

To develop therapeutics and prevention strategies, it is also useful to know more about the specific populations of bacteria present in individuals. For that reason, microbiome profiling has been on the rise in recent years as a way to identify the community of gut bacteria that may be contributing to someone’s symptoms.

“We track an individual’s microbiome over time and monitor changes in the population of bacteria, as well as self-reported symptoms during the same period,” explains biologist Aly Burtch, co-founder and managing director of uBioDiscovery, a Toronto-based firm that offers personalized microbiome monitoring kits to individuals.

“As an added feature, we also provide dietary suggestions for users to help them identify the foods that trigger their symptoms.”

gloved hands touching a microbiome monitoring kit
SUPERBIOME is a personalized microbiome monitoring program that provides you with a complete analysis of the bacterial community living inside your gut

uBioDiscovery grew out of Ryerson’s Science and Discovery Zone, one of 10 on-campus zones for startups, causes or projects. According to Burtch, she and co-founder Alejandro Saettone, the company’s director of research and development, were able to pursue the venture without having to sacrifice their educational goals. Indeed, both Burtch and Saettone were able to complete graduate degrees while also building the business.

We track an individual’s microbiome over time and monitor changes in the population of bacteria, as well as self-reported symptoms during the same period.
Aly Burtch, Co-founder and Managing Director of uBioDiscovery

“Microbiome research is relatively new, but rapidly advancing,” Burtch says of the opportunity they are pursuing. The company hopes its data contributes to the field and brings medical science a step closer to replacing current solutions for gut-related conditions, which include long-term prescription medication use, elimination dieting and over-the-counter supplements.

“Those solutions are often expensive and can cause unpleasant physical side effects and even significant emotional distress,” Burtch notes.

In the meantime, uBioDiscovery is looking at ways to improve the data it gathers for analysis.

“Although our users provide a food log, it is not enforced. We would love to partner with an organization that can track user diets strictly over time, while we monitor their microbiome, to really gauge how different foods influence the community of gut bacteria on a case-by-case basis.”

As allergies, digestive and metabolic disorders continue to rise in North America and elsewhere, uBioDiscovery’s mission has added importance.

If we’re able to shape a healthy microbiome early in life, for example, it could equip our bodies with the tools needed to prevent a variety of conditions later on.

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