Yukon innovators take aim at northern health problems

From early cancer detection to more efficient snowshoes - these Yukoners have novel ideas for improving well-being. They're the finalists in the annual Yukon Innovation Prize competition.

From early cancer detection to better snowshoes, innovation prize finalists look to improve well-being

Yukon Innovation Prize finalist Sharon Katz is working on a method for radon testing in humans that she says could lead to earlier detection of lung cancer. (Dave Croft/CBC)

Four projects from low-tech to high-tech, but all related to health and well-being, are the finalists for this year's Yukon Innovation Prize.

The annual award is geared each year to a specific area of innovation. Last year, it was northern food security; this year it was wellness.

Sharon Katz, one of this year's finalists, is working on a theory that could lead to early detection of lung cancer caused by radon. Yukoners are among the Canadians most likely to be exposed to radon in their homes, she said.

Katz has been trained in biochemistry and biophysics and believes existing scientific methods can be modified to detect radon in a person, using blood or urine samples.

"What I'm suggesting is that we can in fact develop such a tool, that will be based on chemical measurements of certain nuclei and a mathematical model," said Katz.

"And the innovation I'm proposing to do in the Yukon is to get a team together and develop the mathematical model to do that computation," she said.

Dawsonites tout benefits of birch sap as skin moisturizer

Meanwhile, finalists Elise McCormick and Joanne Sherrard in Dawson City are using natural compounds found in raw birch sap to develop facial care products.

"We wanted to look into something that would offer a tangible benefit from the world around us," said Sherrard.

Joanne Sherrard collects birch sap for use as a skin moisturizer. (Submitted by Elise Cortes)

McCormick said birch sap is almost water-like and has compounds that could be beneficial when applied to the skin before other moisturizers.

"They're really effective in drawing and holding moisture against the skin and that is what we are hoping to deliver," said McCormick.

Another prize finalist, Lisa Kanary of Whitehorse, has proposed a way to deliver more personalized reporting and guidance to users of digital fitness trackers.

The fourth finalist, Allan Benjamin in Old Crow, is creating a new snowshoe that, he said, is super efficient.

Allan Benjamin ran in his snowshoes during the 2010 Olympic Torch Run in Old Crow. (CBC)

Benjamin has been taking part in snowshoe races in the community for most of his 60 years. He says it's important for Northerners to get out and enjoy the outdoors.

"I don't point fingers to anybody, but diabetes, obesity, all kinds of health problems. What I'm doing is, I want to design these snowshoes which anybody can snowshoe," said Benjamin.

"A little kid is able to walk, four-years-old, right up to a person who is maybe 100 — anybody can snowshoe."

A news release from Yukon College says each finalist receives $10,000 to develop their idea over the next two months.

The grand prize of $60,000 will be awarded at the end of June, on the basis of technical and economic viability.

The college says the finalists were chosen by a committee made up of health care professionals and others. Entrants were told the committee was looking for ideas with "high market and commercialization potential in health and wellness."

The prize was founded by the Cold Climate Innovation centre at Yukon College and the territorial government's economic development department.

Winning entries in previous years include a "smart" greenhouse to extend the northern growing season, and a radon mitigation system.

with files from Sandi Coleman


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