As the world attempts to recover from COVID-19, we need a proactive, integrated approach to prevent future pandemics. Photo by Slava on Unsplash
Prior to COVID-19, “One Health” seemed an elusive concept except in the circles of infectious disease professionals. Today, it is more relevant than ever to the global population, but what exactly is it?
At its core, “One Health” links animal health to human health from the perspective of zoonotic diseases. It describes the complex relationships that occur among factors that influence human health, animal health and their ecosystems.
To fully grasp the importance of the concept, it is necessary to understand where new diseases come from.
Zoonotic diseases are those transmitted from animals to humans. It is estimated that as many as six out of 10 human infectious illnesses originate from animals. Humans can also infect animals: reverse zoonosis.
Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) can be caused by recently evolved pathogens that have been introduced for the first time into the human population, the most familiar and current example being SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19. EIDs may also extend to previously occurring infectious diseases that are gaining momentum once again by having an expanded geographical range, impact or even a higher occurrence. As many as 75 per cent of human EIDs are zoonotic and are generally associated with wildlife.
With so many variables involved, it’s clear that an integrated health approach is needed, drawing on expertise from numerous disciplines.
In a recent publication in One Health in 2021, Canadian experts recommended three possible areas: zoonoses and chronic diseases; social determinants of zoonoses; and the effectiveness of the health system in their prevention and control.
So how do zoonotic diseases become established in humans in the first place?
The answer lies in the complex interactions among humans, animals, evolving pathogens and their environment.
Globalization, a marvel of the modern world, offers greater access to trade, travel and migration – and a higher risk of pathogen exposure. Activities such as illegal animal trade and “bush meat” consumption can result in human exposure to exotic wildlife pathogens.
Human-induced climatic changes that lead to a rise in global temperatures can also increase risk of exposure to exotic pathogens by affecting animal migration. These changes can influence emergence of vector and water-borne diseases. Deforestation and wildlife habitat encroachment provide more opportunities for contact among humans and animals.
Other factors that favour the emergence of new diseases include destructive agricultural practices, global conflict connected to population displacements and insufficient public health infrastructure.
By their nature, RNA viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 can mutate very quickly, giving rise to the appearance of new strains. For example, variants have arisen in the months since the beginning of the pandemic that appear to spread more easily and affect younger people.
Another issue is antimicrobial and antibiotic misuse which has also been implicated in EID emergence.
Long gone are the days of operating in medical knowledge silos. It is glaring that a more concerted, transdisciplinary approach to global health has become necessary. This means efficiently sharing critical information quickly. We need to get better at pathogen surveillance in both animals and humans.
Currently, I am a Medical Writer with over 5 years of experience as a university educator and an infectious disease researcher, with a focus on vaccinology and viral immunology. A lifelong goal of mine has been to contribute to knowledge translation by leveraging my scientific and medical background. My passion for writing includes global health concepts, immunology and strategies for infectious disease control.
LinkedIn Profile: www.linkedin.com/in/shirenesingh
Cladonia stellaris, the “Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen,” was selected by Canadians to be a national lichen species in a vote held in 2020. (Photo credit: Anders Wahl. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons.)
While Canadians might first choose the moose or the beaver to represent Canada, we need not look further than the ground on which we tread to find a worthy candidate offered by nature.
Because Canadians have the reputation for being good, kind-hearted people, it is only fitting that Canada is highly populated by lichens, little-known composite organisms that spread their goodwill and exist because of the mutually beneficial relationships they provide.
There could not be a better symbol on our soil because lichens benefit the environment, feed wildlife, aid in monitoring pollution, and exist - first and foremost - as an example of mutual aid.
Last year, when Canadians were given the chance to select a national lichen, of the seven species options provided by lichenologists, voters chose the “Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen” (Cladonia stellaris). Found throughout Canada, it resembles cauliflower in appearance.
The lichen organism is neither moss nor plant, although it has been misrepresented as being both. No, the lichen is a species all its own and there are approximately 15,000 kinds of lichen worldwide, including 2,500 that call Canada home.
A lichen (pronounced ‘liken’) is formed when a fungus combines with an alga or cyanobacterium. Together they create a symbiotic relationship - one beneficial to both organisms.
In true symbiotic fashion, the lichen thrives because its composite fungus and alga serve to support one another. Fungi lack chlorophyll, so they can’t photosynthesize, leaving them unable to obtain energy, and thus a source of nourishment, from the sun. Conversely, algae and cyanobacteria can photosynthesize, allowing the fungi associated with them to have a constant food source in addition to food lichens obtained from the air, minerals, and rainfall. In return, fungi provide their partner algae or cyanobacteria with a safe environment in which to thrive as well as provide important protection from ultraviolet (UV) light.
Growing ubiquitously and happily in environments from dry deserts to artic tundra,lichens are resilient. They are found on mountaintops and on the branches of spruce and fir trees. Lichens cover boulders, the tree trunks of elms and maples, and coastal rocks. They even grow on residential driveways. Lichens come in many shapes and sizes and from moss to branch-like in appearance. Because of their inherent symbiosis, they also take on the various colours of the algae or cyanobacteria with which they are partnered and can be anywhere from grey to brightly coloured.
As for their usefulness to others, lichens make up the greater part of the winter diet of caribou because lichens can survive in colder climates where other food sources are not available. They also provide shelter and camouflage for smaller animals. Once more, the sponge-like nature of lichens allows them to absorb pollutants, making them good indicators of pollution and, through lichen biomonitoring, pollutants extracted from lichen can provide us with a picture of atmospheric pollutant levels and inform us about population and environmental pollutant risk.
Even after they die, the likable lichens continue to help other species survive. While most organisms can’t make direct use of nitrogen from the atmosphere, lichens can. When lichens die and decay, they fix nitrogen in the soil, making it available for use by surrounding plants. Lichens are also among the first organisms to colonize barren surfaces, preparing sites for later plant growth by trapping moisture and windblown organic debris and then contributing to organic deposits even when they die and decay.
With a new-found understanding of their ubiquity, anyone learning of lichens might try to be more cautious of where they step while walking a trail or even around their own yard. However, lichens also (surprisingly) can benefit from being trampled upon and being carried off, “hitch-hiking” to new places where they can reproduce, spread and continue to be useful.
Natalie is a PhD Student studying Pharmacology at the University of Toronto. Her academic background includes an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Pharmacology. She hopes to encourage ideas through writing, and bring thoughts on science to anyone the least bit curious.
With Black History Month coming to a close, the Book Awards Committee has been reflecting on the lack of diversity in science writing. There’s no denying that the majority of science books have been written by white men. While their contributions to our understanding of science are important, we wanted to broaden the conversation by seeking out the perspectives of underrepresented groups, such as BIPOC and neurodivergent writers. The five authors listed below bring a wealth of expertise and personal experience to their subjects, which include Indigenous Knowledge, materials science, human behaviour, unconscious bias, and beta decay. These books manage to strike a difficult balance between narrative-driven storytelling and research, resulting in science writing that’s compelling and informative. It is our hope that the book recommendations will help encourage the SWCC community to continue reading and amplifying diverse voices in science communication year-round.
Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Love, Life and Relationships - Written by Camilla Pang (Viking Press, 2020)
Have you ever considered that thermodynamics and enthalpy may explain why a messy room sometimes stays messy despite our best intentions to keep everything tidy? Or that anxiety and fear could be thought of as light passing through a prism, which can be refracted and scattered into more manageable wavelengths? These incredible connections, along with some hand-drawn illustrations, are part of Camilla Pang’s Explaining Humans, which won the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2020. As a scientist who is on the autism spectrum, Pang wrote the book as a manual for herself, but it’s frank details will help readers learn about navigating life with neurodiversity. With insightful and enthusiastic prose, the book describes interesting ways of seeing and understanding the world.
Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias - Written by Pragya Agarwal (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)
Written by Pragya Agarwal, a behavioral and data scientist, Sway is a timely read that highlights implicit and explicit biases against black and ethnic minorities, as well as women and queer individuals. Having faced racial and gender bias as an Indian woman, Agarwal combines her personal experiences with scientific studies, using clear language to explain information to readers. The last chapter offers hope of working through our biases by taking more time to make decisions and recognizing when biases may arise in order to dismantle them. Sway is a well-researched book that will help readers identify and evaluate unconscious bias in their own lives.
Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom - Written by Teresa Robeson, Illustrated by Rebecca Huang (Sterling Children’s Books, 2019)
Most people would consider Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking to be among the most influential physicists of the 20th century, but there’s another name that deserves to be added to the list: Chien-Shiung Wu. Born in China at a time when girls often received a sub-par education to boys, Wu defied the odds by studying physics at the National Central University in Nanjing. She later immigrated to the United States, where she became an expert on beta decay. During her career, Wu helped other researchers design experiments that earned three Nobel Prizes, but her contributions were overlooked and she never received a nomination. In Queen of Physics, Teresa Robeson and Rebecca Huang use poignant text and illustrations to capture Wu’s story for young readers, never shying away from the discrimination that she faced as an Asian woman in a male-dominated field.
Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World - Written by Tyson Yunkaporta (HarperCollins, 2020)
“Our knowledge endures because everybody carries a part of it, no matter how fragmentary. If you want to see the pattern of creation, you talk to everybody and listen carefully,” Tyson Yunkaporta writes in Sand Talk, a book that will challenge the way you think about science and the world. An Aboriginal scholar and artist, Yukaporta uses oral culture exchanges, symbols, and songlines to guide readers through a range of topics that clearly demonstrate the enduring relevance of Indigenous Knowledge, while stressing the importance of community and connection. His skillful narration is humorous and insightful, making it easy to see why the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper named Sand Talk one of the best science book of 2020.
The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another - Written by Ainissa Ramirez (The MIT Press, 2020)
Ainissa Ramirez was close to giving up on her dream of becoming a scientist when a professor at Brown University made a remark in class that she never forgot: “The reason why we don’t fall through the floor, the reason why my sweater is blue, and the reason why the lights work is because of the way atoms interact with each other.” So began a lifelong fascination with materials science, which combines physics, engineering, and chemistry to study the properties of solid materials. Ramirez, an award-winning scientist, has captured the intrigue of this interdisciplinary field in The Alchemy of Us, making topics like quartz clocks, steel rails, and glass labware come alive for readers. With a keen eye for perspectives that have been overlooked by history, her book is guaranteed to enlighten and entertain.
By: The Book Awards Committee
While COVID-19 ravages the world, scientists are still trying to unravel the unique mysteries of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, and why it so deadly to so many. Among those seeking answers are U.S. scientists from the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Marylandwho published a study in the journal Blood.https://ashpublications.org/blood/article/136/18/2080/463611/Direct-activation-of-the-alternative-complement
From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists knew that the spike-like proteins on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 latched on to cells targeted for infection. Recent research shows the spikes grab a substance called “heparan sulfate,” a large, complex sugar molecule found on the surface of cells in the lungs, blood vessels and smooth muscle that make up most organs. After binding with the cell, SARS-CoV-2 uses another cell-surface component, the protein known as “angiotensin-converting enzyme 2” (ACE2), to break into the cell.
The havoc begins here.
When SARS-CoV-2 ties up heparan sulfate it prevents another substance - factor H - from doing its job of regulating chemical signals that both trigger inflammation and keep the immune system from harming healthy cells. Without factor H protection, cells in the lungs, heart, kidneys, and other organs, can be destroyed by the very defense mechanism nature intended -the immune system.
JHU researchers discovered that “factor D,” a protein in the immune system, enables SARS-CoV-2 to turn the immune system against itself and damage healthy cells. When factor H is functionally dismantled by factor D, the immune system attacks healthy cells, as autoimmune diseases do.
The immune system’s response to chemicals released by killed cells could be responsible for the serious organ damage and organ failures in severe cases of COVID-19.
"Previous research has suggested that along with tying up heparan sulfate, SARS-CoV-2 activates a cascading series of biological reactions -- what we call the “alternative pathway of complement” – or APC, that can lead to inflammation and cell destruction of healthy organs if misdirected by the immune system," explained study senior author Robert Brodsky, M.D., director of the hematology division at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "The goal of our study was to discover how the virus activates this pathway and find a way to inhibit it before the damage happens."
According to Brodsky, the APC is one of three chain reaction processes involved in splitting and combining of more than 20 different proteins -- known as “complement proteins” -- that usually get activated when bacteria or viruses invade the body. The end-product of this complement cascade is a structure called the “membrane attack complex” (MAC).
To discover exactly how the virus activates the APC cascade and blocks factor H from connecting with the sugar, the researchers used normal human blood serum and three subunits of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to disable the complement regulation by which factor H keeps immune response under control.
"When we added a small molecule that inhibits the function of factor D, the APC wasn't activated by the SARS2 virus spike proteins," explained Brodsky.
He uses an automobile metaphor to explain Factor D and Factor H co-activity.
"If the brakes are disabled, the gas pedal can be floored without restraint, likely leading to a crash," he explained. "The viral spike proteins disable the biological brakes (factor H) enabling the gas pedal (factor D) to accelerate the immune system and cause cell, tissue and organ devastation. Inhibit factor D and the brakes can be re-applied and the immune system reset."
The good news is that there are already drugs in development that can block factor D’s nefarious work. Although still in testing, it appears that one such drug - ravulizumab - blocks the complement attack triggered by the spike proteins.
To be clear, these drugs are not vaccines aimed at halting the community spread of the virus. Rather, they are aimed at helping to prevent the worst organ damage in those who acquire COVID-19.
By: Randolph Fillmore
Randolph Fillmore is a science and medical writer and an adjunct professor of anthropology and mass communications at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida, USA. He is the director of Florida Science Communications (www.sciencewriter.ink , a member of the National Association of Science Writers in the U.S. since 1994, and has recently joined the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada.
Source: Getty Images
Whether it be from supermarkets, restaurants or our own kitchens, people throw away a lot of food. Or rather, they feed it to animals.
In many countries Canada, close to 40 per cent of total food loss comes from these later stages of the supply chain1. While cycling food waste towards animal feed may seem like a noble approach to handling this challenge, the question remains: is food waste safe for animals?
Food waste materials are defined differently, depending on where they come from within the supply chain2. The term “food loss” refers to waste generated during food processing and manufacturing (many of these items are safely diverted to animal feed in the form of by-products). The term “food waste” refers to items discarded at retail or consumer levels. These carry a higher risk for harbouring contaminants and disease.
Feeding uncooked food waste to animals not only puts their health at risk, but also the entire food chain – especially if that food waste is contaminated with meat products. In 2009, 25 to 35 per cent of the global pork supply was wiped-out from African swine fever – a highly transmissible viral disease that has been linked with feeding food waste to pigs 3. In 2001, more than six million lambs, pigs and cattle died during the European foot-and-mouth disease epidemic which was linked to the feeding of uncooked food waste to animals.4. Other diseases like vesicular exanthema (a swine disease similar to foot-and-mouth), trichinosis (caused by parasitic roundworms in pigs), and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, a.k.a. “mad cow” disease) have also had devastating effects on livestock industries. All been linked to improper feeding of food waste products
Raw food waste can also harbour infectious organisms worrisome to public health, even if the food waste is plant-based. The risk of plant-based food waste being contaminated with Salmonella, for example, may depend on the type of plants it came from. A study published in Frontiers of Microbiology found that certain vegetable plants tend to be colonized by Salmonella more than others5. So, even if raw food waste is free of meat contaminants that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe for our animals.
Heavy metals and toxins are another risk factor to be considered before feeding food waste to livestock. A survey of European household and restaurant waste found that the levels of lead, cadmium and dioxins exceeded allowable limits for livestock feed6. These compounds accumulate in the food chain and can negatively impact human and animal health.
From animal feed, to animal welfare, to public health, all stages of the food supply chain are connected. That’s why many countries have implemented strict regulations around the use of food waste as animal feed. And while the practice of feeding food waste to our animals has decreased, it has not been eliminated. A survey from the United Kingdom estimated that 24 per cent of small producers continue to feed uncooked household food waste to their livestock3.
In Canada, feeding raw household or donated food waste to a producer’s own animals is allowed. It is the exception to the rules, as long as it isn’t contaminated with meat and the resulting animal products to anyone else7. These exceptions are confusing and send conflicting messages about the safety of the practice and raise concerns throughout the food industry.
This article first appeared in The Western Producer
By: Janna Moats
Janna Moats is a Professional Agrologist and science writer based in Saskatoon. She obtained her Master of Science degree in Animal Science from the University of Saskatchewan and has worked across various sectors of the agriculture and agri-food industry. Connect with her on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jannamoats
The grey nurse shark ( Carcharias taurus), a coastal species on the ICU's Red List as critically endangered. A public domain photo by Richard Ling.
Here's how sharks are "finned."
After hauling them aboard their vessels, the fishermen cut off their fins, then toss them back into the ocean. Still alive, they sink to the bottom where they're either eaten by other predators or die of suffocation.
About 100 million sharks are believed to be taken by fishers each year, most of them for their fins alone.
It's an industry estimated to be worth US$400 million a year.
The blue shark (Prionaceglauca). Photo by Mark Conlin/NMFS.
If one were to believe official trade records over the past twenty years, most fins traded on world markets have come from more abundant "pelagic" species (ones which live in the open ocean) like the blue shark (above).
The leopard shark (Stegostoma fasciatum). An ADV photo by Jeffrey N. Jeffords.
Using advanced techniques in barcoding and genetic tracing, scientists are now painting a different picture. By analyzing more than five thousand fins from markets on three continents, they still found a lot had come for those "pelagic" populations.
But they also found "an additional 40 'range-restricted' coastal species" which did not show up in previous records. These populations live closer to shore and do not range as widely as those in the open oceans. With local jurisdictions providing little protection for them, their populations now face "dramatic declines" and are "typically less abundant."
However, even the more common deep-sea species have been falling victim to "chronic exploitation" by fishers who are "collapsing" their populations, too.
New DNA tracking techniques are revealing a greater number of threatened and coastal sharks from stockpiles of intact shark and processed fins (pictured). Image credit: Paul Hilton.
So, if we want to conserve sharks and curb the "unsustainable global trade in shark fins," conclude the researchers, "stronger local controls of coastal fishing are urgently needed."
Their study was published this summer in the proceedings of The Royal Society.
But this is hardly the first cautionary tale pointing to the plight of Earth's marine life in general and sharks, in particular. Another research paper published in 2017 warns, they face "possibly the largest crisis of their 420 million year history. Many populations are overfished to the point where global catch peaked in 2003, and a quarter of species have an elevated risk of extinction."
By: Larry Powell
Hi, I’m Larry Powell, an eco-journalist living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba, Canada.
I belong to The Science Writers & Communicators of Canada, The American Association for the Advancement of Science and The Canadian Association of Journalists.
I’m authorized to receive embargoed material through the Science Media Centre of Canada, the Royal Society, NatureResearch and the World Health Organization.
This allows me to “get a jump” on important stories by fleshing them out with fact-checks and interviews, in advance. This often arms me with “hot-off-the-press” stories the moment the embargo is lifted.
This summer, I joined an international team of writers, telling animal “tails” in the online journal, “Focusing on Wildlife - Celebrating the Biodiversity of Planet Earth.”
I publish the blog, PlanetInPeril (PinP), where science gets respect! You can email me at: PlanetWatch1@yahoo.ca.
Rock Lake (Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario) in the fall. Image © James Wheeler via Gallery.World (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 license).
Fall is a beautiful season, filled with golden hope and burgundy possibilities. The green colour of leaves changes to a colourful mix of yellow, orange, and red. Have you ever wondered why? If you have (and even if you have not but are wondering now), let’s take a look at the science behind the fall foliage.
Leaves develop over spring and summer, and in the fall, they start to age. But there are complex processes behind this. They include changes in the pigments that give them colour. The green leaf pigment chlorophyll breaks down, while carotenoids (yellow) are retained, and anthocyanins (red) are produced.
In the fall, nutrients and other components that support leaf health are withdrawn. This process leaves yellow carotenoids behind, causing the bright yellow and golden appearance seen in many fall leaves. However, we often see yellow leaves with scattered green patterns. These patterns are caused by fungi infections. Fungi produce a plant hormone, cytokinin, that inhibits the aging process and causes some of the green chlorophyll to remain.
The red colour palette of fall leaves is produced right before the leaves fall to the ground. The red pigments are thought to protect plants from photooxidative damage (that is, damage from sunlight), support nutrient redistribution, and defend against aphids.
But what happens to the green leaf pigment, chlorophyll? Prior to 1991, we did not know. A breakthrough came that year from Austria when Bernard Kräutler from the University of Innsbruck identified the first compound that is a result of the chlorophyll breakdown. In fact, over the next twenty-six years, Kräutler and other scientists identified about 20 more compounds, many of which were found to exhibit different colours. These findings helped explain some of the shades of yellow, pink, and red seen in leaves.
Albert Camus once said: “Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower.” Whether these fall flowers have carotenoids, compounds of chlorophyll breakdown, or anthocyanins, I will still spend my weekend raking the leaves.
By: Olena Shynkaruk
Olena Shynkaruk, Ph.D., is a freelance science writer and editor with a love for languages. She is a Ukrainian Canadian who has studied, worked, and presented internationally. Her experience as a science communicator includes grant writing, manuscript editing, copywriting, and working as a contributing writer for Lab Manager magazine. Feel free to connect with Olena on LinkedIn or email her at email@example.com.
The genetic controls that govern creation of the placenta (left) are similar to those that go awry to touch off cancer. Illustration: Almas Khan, created in BioRender.com
Cancer is a devastating disease marked by defective cells that multiply out of control and go on to invade our bodies. But what if I told you the processes that make cancer so dangerous are normal features of an organ necessary for us in the beginning of our life?
That organ exists for a short time and is usually discarded after we are born. It barely registers in people’s minds beyond that of potentially consuming it for so-called health benefits. Even science has long ignored this multifunctional organ which plays a role in the development of each and every one of us.
That organ is the placenta.
The placenta starts to form when cells from the growing fetus quickly invade and remodel the mother’s surrounding tissue, including reworking blood vessels to aid the growing fetus. This is similar to how a tumour starts to form and triggers blood vessel development to feed its growth.
While the placenta is forming, its cells work hard to inhibit parts of the immune system so the growing fetus isn’t rejected by the body. Various ‘immune evasion’ strategies used by the placenta are also used by cancer cells to prevent growing tumours from being destroyed by killer T-cells. One of these is to recruit regulatory T-cells (T-regs) near the tumour site to suppress killer T-cells that would otherwise destroy the cancer cells.
The placenta has also been found to recruit nearby T-regs to evade the immune system.
The image below shows the similarities between a solid tumour and a placenta at a structural level with blood vessel remodelling and immune modulatory level.
Credits(Constanzo et al. 2017)
Similarities don’t stop at development but occur even at a genetic level. Many tumour suppressor genes (TSGs) which code for important proteins that work to prevent out-of-control cell division in cancer are usually turned off when the placenta is being formed.
Not only that, but chemical markers known as methyl groups, which regulate genes and usually turn them off (but not always), occur in much lower numbers in cancer cells and those that form the placenta. In fact, many studies have found genes expressed in lung cancer, breast cancer, and various other forms of cancer to be similar ‘placenta-specific’ genes.
So, what does this all mean?
Several studies show that cancer rates are higher in placental mammals, that is, those such as cats, cattle, humans and many others that grow a placenta as part of their reproductive process. There is a similarity of genetic control in both in the placenta and in various cancers these mammals get.
An emerging hypothesis states that genes and molecular pathways which allow for placenta formation may somehow become reactivated later in life in cancer.
The placenta provides a rich paradigm to study so-called aberrant processes in a normal context of complex regulation, even with fast growth. It provides some compelling clues as to why things can go so wrong later on.
By: Almas Khan
Almas Khan a MSc student in the University of British Columbia’s(UBC) Bioinformatics program. She is studying epigenetic of the placenta and its relation to birth outcomes. She also received her BSc in Microbiology and Immunology at UBC. Outside of the lab, she likes baking, tea, yoga, and reading investigative journalism pieces and fantasy novels
Compassionate psychelics: easing anxiety and depression in the dying
This article discusses topics relating to end-of-life depression and anxiety. If you require mental health support, please see the resources at the bottom of this article.
In August 2020, four terminally ill patients were granted permission to use psychedelic therapy in Canada. They were given psilocybin, the hallucinogenic component of what are popularly called “magic mushrooms,” to help ease their anxieties and depression at end-of-life.
End-of-life care involves helping someone remain comfortable at the end one’s life. Physicians will use palliative practices, that is, those aimed at alleviating things like pain and shortness of breath and providing support through death for patients with life-threatening conditions. Palliative care doctors use this kind of treatment when a condition is deemed unfixable.
Dr. James Downar is a researcher and head of the division of palliative care at the University of Ottawa.
“There are times when you can’t actually fix the problem—but you may be able to reduce the effect it has on a person,” he says.
Most will remember psychedelics as a relic of the 1960s. They are often associated with this decades’ many counter-culture movements, particularly among hippies, musicians and cultists alike.
When taken in high doses, psychedelics have strong effects on a person’s perception of the world. Users might experience hallucinations and confused senses, tasting colors and smelling sounds. On the flip side, people might also experience what is known as a “bad trip.” This can manifest as an intense fear or paranoia.
These substances can also induce rich, spiritual-like experiences, which is a big part of why they got so popular in the 60s. Early users would often report feelings of connectedness, love, and compassion for others—feelings that would remain long after the hallucinations disappeared.
Researchers are still trying to understand exactly how psychedelics work. But there is a surprising number of studies that suggest they might be able to help treat mental health. Some experts hope to leverage these spiritual side-effects to help people overcome conditions such as depression and anxiety.
This is what makes the drugs so appealing for palliative care.
“Our interest in palliative care is relieving suffering,” Downar says. “What is becoming increasingly apparent is that suffering can occur on many different levels.”
One of those levels is known as “existential suffering.”
“One of the most concerning things about disease is its ability to rob you of doing the things that you enjoy,” Downar explains. “These can be things like work, art, hobbies—all things that give people joy and meaning in life.”
When a person thinks they will never again experience meaningful activities, they can fall into a deep depression. This is the core of existential suffering, he says.
Downar explains that psychedelic therapy can help people come to terms with their distress, reduce their existential suffering, and help them find meaning at the end of life.
This interest in psychedelics as a therapeutic tool may be surprising, but it is not new. Use of the drugs has a long and surprising history in Canada. So, why did it take so long for them to pick up steam in the medical community?
Psilocybe cyanescens Wakef mushrooms, commonly called “Wavy Caps,” are one of the many species of mushrooms that contain psilocybin. Source: Vancouver Mycological Society.
The story of psychedelic therapy in Canada is almost as “trippy” as the drugs themselves, stretching from rural Canada to Los Angeles, threading through the lives of a Swiss scientist, a British war veteran, and a prolific science fiction author.
This is not an exhaustive history of psychedelics in Canada. But below is an outline of some of the surprising connections that surround these powerful substances. So, let’s take a trip, shall we?
This story begins with the arrival of Dr. Humphry Osmond. Osmond was a British World War II veteran who after the war worked on the psychiatric unit at St. George’s Hospital in London, England. There, he developed an academic interest in mind-altering drugs and substances.
Osmond and two colleagues began experiments with mescaline, the psychoactive component of peyote cactus. After two years of study, they found that this chemical would induce symptoms similar to those observed in people with schizophrenia.
Osmond’s use of chemicals ran counter to traditional therapeutic approaches. His colleagues were keener on psychoanalysis—the process of treatment and diagnosis through open conversation between therapist and patient.
As a result, Osmond moved to Weyburn, Saskatchewan in October 1951 and took over as clinical director of the now-defunct Weyburn Mental Hospital.
At the time, this hospital had a reputation as one of the worst asylums in North America, explains Erika Dyck, a medical historian at the University of Saskatchewan. But Osmond felt that here he would have more freedom to continue his explorations with mind-altering substances. He was right.
The 1950s was a period of great change for Saskatchewan. Tommy Douglas, premier of the province at the time, advanced what was considered a radically progressive agenda, one that ultimately laid the groundwork for universal healthcare in Saskatchewan and in Canada.
Douglas’ progressive attitude towards healthcare made the province an attractive place for health researchers.
“People were coming to witness this experiment unfolding,” explains Dyck. “It became a trading zone for ideas that were infused with a political vision for the future, for what kinds of things we can expect for our healthcare system.”
This is the context in which Osmond would begin his experiments with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
LSD is a synthetic hallucinogen accidentally invented by Albert Hoffman in Switzerland long before Osmond arrived in Canada. Hoffman consumed a small quantity of the drug while synthesizing it, leading to mild symptoms, including dizziness and restlessness. Once he identified LSD as the source of his symptoms, he took a remarkable next step – self-experimentation. Hoffman went on his first trip.
He was anxious and afraid at first, as his hallucinations were understandably unexpected. Eventually, his anxieties went away and he was left to enjoy a kaleidoscope of colors dancing before him. He later wrote on how the experience was a net positive.
Years later, Osmond spent his time trying to understand how and why LSD had such a powerful effect. He hypothesized that it could be used therapeutically in the Weyburn Mental Hospital.
One of Osmond’s patients stated that while under the influence of LSD he learned to address his life problems with new-found conviction. This, in turn, helped him find a more positive outlook on life and forge better relationships with himself and others. These feelings continued long after the immediate effects of LSD disappeared.
Parallel to these experiments, Osmond also learned about another potential use for LSD in end-of-life care.
Osmond became good friends with the famous science fiction author Aldous Huxley, who lived in Los Angeles—far from the winds of Saskatchewan – but they bonded through regular letters which document Osmond and Huxley’s evolving perspective on psychedelics. Together, they explored the spiritual nature of the substances, and Huxley introduced Osmond to the potential power of psychedelics for end-of-life care.
Huxley told Osmond about the profound experience he shared with his wife Maria, who was suffering from cancer. As her health deteriorated, she was spending more time unconscious. But Huxley and Maria both had an affinity for psychedelic drugs. Together, they had spent a lot of time learning from the Indigenous communities in the United States who often used psychedelic substances in healing rituals to help overcome anxiety at end-of-life.
“This was a way to help release the mortal bonds of life,” Dyck explains.
On Maria’s deathbed, she and Huxley consumed psychedelics together. Huxley later described to Osmond how the psychedelic substances helped both him and Maria find peace in these final hours. The experience was so profound, Huxley requested the same treatment as he was dying, and finally died of throat cancer on November 22, 1963.
Psychedelic research largely halted after the 1960s. The “hippie” movement came and went, and the substances were seared in the public consciousness as dangerous, addictive, and unpredictable. This era left behind a lasting stigma that continues to make some palliative care physicians reluctant to embrace the drugs, Downar explains.
Medical historian and Canada Research Chair Erika Dyck. Photo: University of Saskatchewan
Some elements of psychedelic therapy also do not fit the model of healthcare that Canada has adopted, Dyck says.
Many psychedelic-trained psychiatrists would be necessary to help people use the substances safely and to maximize the chance of positive outcomes. This makes it difficult to widely adopt the therapy, especially since there are many other medications that can help treat depression or anxiety—many of which require much less professional supervision.
Downar says that “micro-dosing,” a method of consumption involves taking small amounts of the psychedelic substance, might be a way to mitigate this. Small doses can stimulate the brain but not enough to induce strong hallucinations, allowing psychedelics to be used with less direct supervision. More research needs to be done before this can made a reality.
In some ways, palliative care is the perfect place to explore psychedelic therapy, as end-of-life can be a time for finding deep meaning and reflection. Palliative therapies must concern themselves as much with the spiritual as with the physiological elements of dying, Downar says.
Can psychedelics be transformative for carrying out palliative care? That remains unclear, but Downar says it is worth exploring if it can reduce end-of-life suffering.
If you need resources or assistance surrounding mental illnesses, please visit the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s websiteto learn more. You can also find palliative care resources on the Canadian Hospice and Palliative Care Association website.
This article is based on research conducted by Erika Dyck, PhD. Learn more about her work.
By: Eric Dicaire
Eric Dicaire is a communicator and thinker based out of Ottawa, Canada. He currently holds a Master’s degree in Communication from the University of Ottawa, and is the communications coordinator for the Bruyère Research Institute. He enjoys examining how people think about and interact with media, and how these interactions influence public discourse in Canada. He aspires to be a life-long learner, looking for new ways to challenge his own biases and exploring new concepts and ideas.
Winning the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada People’s Choice Award for Science Online is a significant achievement. Winning the award a second time confirms that Let’s Talk Science has the formula for enduring quality.
But where did their scicomm journey begin? Vanessa Nelson, Vice-President of External Relations at Let’s Talk Science recounts the organisation’s humble inception and shares their plans for their future.
Nearly 30 years ago, President and Founder Bonnie Schmidt recognized that elementary school educators were receptive to support for teaching science and technology and making it engaging for their students. She saw that teachers struggled with garnering and keeping children’s interest in the sciences.
“It can be challenging to engage children and youth in science,” Nelson says. “It requires a little bit more connection and understanding to engage kids. They need to understand and see relevance.”
According to Nelson, Schmidt started working directly in classrooms, volunteering with educators and finding ways to “show kids how exciting STEM could be.”
Since 1991, Let’s Talk Science has grown from two or three volunteers like Schmidt to more than 70 people located across the country. The team now collaborates with more than 50 colleges and universities across Canada. The charitable organization relies on funding from governments, corporations, foundations and individuals to provide resources and programming at no charge.
Their focus? Creating interest in science that lasts so kids stay in the subjects longer … and develop the skills that they need to thrive and succeed.
A key activity for Let’s Talk Science is promoting careers in science.
“Be it from a hairdresser right up to a laboratory researcher: all of those [careers] require some sort of STEM skills and critical thinking,” Nelson says.
Volunteers go into classrooms (now virtually) and, in addition to delivering hands-on and curriculum aligned STEM activities, take the time to tell students about their studies or their working life, how they got there, and what their next steps might be. To further support career exploration, the Let’s Talk Science website has a dedicated career section for children and teachers that showcases unique current and future careers in science.
“If a kid doesn’t know that a job exists, how are they going to think to go into that field?” Nelson says.
“I think every parent and teacher should be exposing kids around them to a range of career resources to give them an idea of what's out there, where a STEM education can take you."
Let’s Talk Science is largely supported by its base of 3,500 volunteers.
COVID-19 and a new game plan
COVID-19 has changed the organization’s traditional outreach approach and their typical audience focus. They have transitioned to virtual outreach and online involvement in classrooms, and geared resources towards families.
In some cases, this means adapting content that fits a less formal learning environment.
“We’re here to provide support and learning and engagement for education, no matter where it's taking place,” Nelson says.
In the last nine months, the organization has developed an even greater appreciation of the value of STEM learning for innovation and finding solutions to complex human problems.
“COVID made STEM learning more relevant than ever,” Nelson says. “Every solution or approach to responding to the pandemic, be it medical, engineering, or design, comes through a STEM lens.”
“Not every kid needs to be a scientist, but every kid needs to be able to think critically,” Vanessa Nelson says.
Encouraging a generation of critical thinkers
STEM and critical thinking go hand in hand, and Let’s Talk Science fosters these skills in all of their resources.
“How do you make sure that you have the understanding and the learning (children) need to make decisions and to think critically about topics? Our goal has never been to influence decision-making, but rather provide the scientific literacy that kids need.”
The need for children to learn how to make sound scientific decisions and learn how problem-solve and innovate today and in the future is more important than ever as misinformation online surges.
“Not every kid needs to be a scientist, but every kid needs to be able to think critically,” Nelson says.
Let’s Talk Science aims to arm students with the skills they need to make decisions about climate change, viruses, and other real-world problems. It does not exist to advocate for a particular cause or to take a stance.
Instead of focusing on vaccine denial, they talk about how vaccines are developed and how they work so that youth can understand.
“Then, kids don't need an advocacy position being taken,” Nelson says. “Provided with sound science learning, youth are well equipped to make sound decisions for themselves.”
Building on this approach, in the coming years the organization will increase its focus on climate - not just climate change. What is climate and how does it work? What is its influence on our lives? How is it impacted by our actions?
Let’s Talk Science has an ongoing project that allows classrooms to collect data to monitor the environment in the classroom. This allows the classes to monitor carbon dioxide and oxygen levels, humidity, and temperature and see how their actions affect these variables.
“What happens if you open a window? Do CO2 levels go down? This helps students understand the impact of their behaviours.”
The Let’s Talk Science team believes it is critical to translate science and research using concepts that children relate to.
“I think there’s a really strong need to make science learning accessible,” Nelson says. “It can become very technical.”
“A chemical formula may not mean a heck of a lot to a kid,” Nelson says. “But if you show them that it's how their Kool-Aid gets made … that's relevancy.”
By: Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs
Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs is a recent journalism and French graduate from Carleton University. She spends her free time reading or getting outside. Her favourite subjects to learn and write about are conservation, sustainability, and trees. Born and raised in Toronto, Adenieke recently packed up and moved to Paris, France to teach English for the school year.
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