Health·Second Opinion

Why Trump's talk on drugs matters to Canada, and how to become a memory athlete

Second Opinion is a vital dose of the week's news in health and medicine from reporter Kelly Crowe and CBC Health.

Plus, researchers say they know how to crack the 2-hour marathon

Last month, President Trump told the U.S. Congress that he wants to 'slash the restraints' on FDA approvals. That should worry Canadians, argues one health economist. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Reuters)

This week, scientists served up the secret to developing a world-champion memory, and the formula for an athletic breakthrough. Also, professors are working together to try getting drug company secrets out of Health Canada. But first, we spoke with a health economist raising the alarm about talk of drug deregulation south of the border.

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Why Canada should care if Trump lowers the bar on drug approval

Canadians should be worried about the anti-regulation mood sweeping the U.S. under President Donald Trump — especially around prescription drugs, according to University of Alberta health economist Christopher McCabe.

In his recent speech to Congress, Trump said he wants to "slash the restraints" on FDA drug approvals.That's a bad idea, McCabe argues in a commentary in Nature

For starters, a sick person won't get better if the drug they're taking doesn't work. Plus, spending money on useless drugs wastes precious health care dollars. And McCabe warns, if the U.S. lowers its drug standards, Canada will be under pressure to do the same.

Listen to Christopher McCabe explain why drug companies need to prove their drugs work, and why Canadians should care if U.S. drug approval standards are lowered.

Professors take Health Canada to court

Access to drug data is a matter of public safety, and Health Canada is going too far to protect drug company secrets. That's the legal argument some university professors are making, as they drag Health Canada into federal court.

Peter Doshi, from the University of Maryland, is fighting for access to clinical trial data for the drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, as well as three HPV vaccines. He says he needs the data for a systematic review of the efficacy and safety of these drugs.

Under Vanessa's Law (The Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs Act) there's a clause allowing the release of confidential drug company data to those who want to use it to protect and promote human health. That includes university researchers and arguably, investigative journalists too.

At least eight researchers have tried to get unpublished drug data from Health Canada and all of them have faced the same roadblock. No data unless they sign a confidentiality agreement, and a threat of legal action if they show it to anyone.

Health Canada told us it has no comment at this time. But on Friday, it released a white paper proposing that the information be made public.

You can be a memory athlete, too

Remember that time you left the grocery list at home and couldn't recall what was on it? Well, researchers say you can train your brain to do better. They put people on a half-hour daily regimen trying to memorize a list of words. After 40 days, participants went from remembering 26 words to an astounding 62.

The secret? Researchers taught the participants the same method used by world champion memory athletes. The trick is to associate the words with a place, like a room in a house. Words come back to mind as you take an imaginary walk around the room. 

Evan Xie, of Windsor, N.S., is an International Master of Memory. The Grade 11 student can memorize the sequence of a deck of cards in just over 32 seconds. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

And it stuck. Four months after the training, the participants still had substantially improved recall. What's more, brain scans showed the same connectivity patterns as those seen in the brains of memory athletes. So yes, you too can train your brain to one day compete in the World Memory Championships.

Mathematics meets the marathon

How do you cut three minutes out of a marathon to break the elusive two-hour barrier?  Researchers say they've crunched the numbers, and know how it can be done.

For starters, the runner will need feather-light shoes, about 100 grams lighter than those worn by the current record holder. 

Dennis Kimetto of Kenya set a world record at the 2014 Berlin Marathon. Now researchers say they know how to crack the elusive two-hour mark. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Then, the second half of the course will have to be slightly downhill. Add to that a tail wind. Either that, or the top runners will need to co-operate by taking turns leading and drafting off of each other, as is done in cycling races. The researchers point out that's a tall order, especially when hundreds of thousands of dollars are on the line.

But if it all comes together, they're confident a winning runner could shave about four and a half minutes off the current world record, smashing that two-hour milestone.The world's fastest runners have come oh-so-close in recent years. The current record goes to Kenya's Dennis Kimetto, who ran the 2014 Berlin Marathon in a blistering 2:02:57.

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