Ambitious entries in the Grand Challenges Canada competition from Women’s College scientists

Originally Posted, May 14, 2013’s-college

By Krystal Seecharan

Imagine having a mobile app that gives people in Kenya instant access to tools and information about coping with traumatic stress brought on by child abuse or neglect. Or how about the chance to screen every woman in the Bahamas for a dangerous mutation that increases the risk of breast cancer.

These are two inspiring global initiative submissions by two scientists from Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI) for the Grand Challenges Canada competition.

Grand Challenges Canada awards grants of $100,000 each for projects to be implemented in the developing world.

Among the hundreds of applications for the grants were two highly ambitious and creative projects by WCRI scientists: one from research scientist and clinical psychologist Dr. Catherine Classen, director of the Women’s Mental Health Research Program at WCRI and academic leader for the Trauma Therapy Program within the Women’s Mental Health Program at Women’s College Hospital; and one from Dr. Steven Narod, Canada Research Chair in Breast Cancer (Tier 1) and senior scientist at WCRI.

An innovative app

As the chair of the traumatic stress section of the Canadian Psychological Association, Dr. Classen participated in a global collaboration project with the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS). They wanted to find a project that ISTSS and all of its affiliates could work on together in a collaborative initiative.

“It was exciting for us to finally land on and agree that child abuse and neglect is a global health problem that we as a group wanted to address. So the next question was how would we do this,” says Dr. Classen.

That’s when the idea to develop a mobile app came into being. “We wanted to do something that’s really tangible, something that we can take out into the world,” explains Dr. Classen.

Dr. Classen and Dr. Gladys Mwiti, founder and CEO of Oasis Africa and a representative from Kenya in the global collaboration, are the named applicants. Partners in the project also include representatives from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and its affiliate societies.

The overall aspiration of this project is to develop the prototype in Kenya where there is a high rate of smart phones, and very limited access to mental health services.

“Our goal is to develop this app and show that it can be helpful and life-changing,” says Dr. Classen. “If successful, we would then apply for the larger scale Grand Challenges Canada grant so that we could adapt the app to other countries around the world, in different languages and appropriate it to those respective cultures.”

Dr. Classen’s vision is to provide information and improve access to care for people around the world who are dealing with a history of abuse and neglect and don’t have access to services. She hopes that her app will give them the information they need, tools for coping, and direct them to the right resources.

The app will be designed to run on any type of smart phone and will have information about child abuse and neglect, assuring the individual that they are not alone. It will also describe the consequences and impact of abuse and neglect, what struggles people have when facing child abuse and neglect, and how to cope.

“We want to develop some tools for the app such as a couple of minutes of meditation, guided imagery, or anything that people can use in the moment when they get distressed. We also want to help them understand what a trigger is and how it can feel as though they are reliving the past. We want to give them something to ground and soothe them when these feelings from past traumas get stirred up. Mental health services in Kenya and developing countries are extremely limited and so this type of support has the potential to make a huge difference.,” says Dr. Classen.

Dr. Classen also hopes to provide localized links to existing services in their country along with links to other international websites.

The hope is that the app would be free to download and could be used any time without the need for Internet or wifi connection.

Funding from Grand Challenges would assist in travel expenses to and from Kenya, app development and a research assistant to assist with content development and to co-ordinate the research team.

To learn more about Dr. Classen’s innovative app, watch her video submission for the Grand Challenges competition here.

Testing for mutations

Dr. Steven Narod had been studying breast cancer in the Bahamas for about four years when he noticed how high the risk for breast cancer was among women there.

His goal is to maximize the knowledge for cancer prevention by testing all women in the Bahamas for a mutation that increases risk for breast and ovarian cancer (BRCA1 mutation), and offer the option of reducing the risk through preventive surgery to remove the ovaries.

“Most women there don’t know they have the mutation,” says Dr. Narod. “So we have to figure out a way to market and promote screening throughout the country and test all the women in the Bahamas. We believe about five per cent are going to test positive.”

This is the first national program of this scale.

About 27 per cent of breast cancer patients in the Bahamas have the BRCA1 mutation, which is almost ten times the three per cent rate seen here in Canada.

“The risk of cancer is so common there; we think there is a possibility that a large number of them would get breast or ovarian cancer. We also think it’s preventable, so our goal is to find them all and prevent it. Our ultimate goal is to get 100,000 women tested.”

The grant would provide funds for better marketing and advertising to spread the word about the program, and would allow them to test more patients. Currently it costs $50 to test each person, but Dr. Narod hopes to bring testing down to $20 per person.

“My ultimate goal in this plan is to test every single woman for this mutation and to provide the marketing and education around it,” says Dr. Narod.

The preventive surgery for women carrying the mutation will cut the risk of breast cancer in half and eliminate the risk of ovarian cancer.

The remarkable thing about this project is that the surgeons have agreed to do the surgery for free.

“It’s a long process and we’ll keep trying,” says Dr. Narod. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to make a big difference for the women down there.”

To learn more about Dr. Narod’s initiative click here to view his submission for the Grand Challenges competition.

Also be sure to vote for Dr. Classen and Dr. Narod’s videos to increase their chances of receiving the Grand Challenges grant.

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