Researchers may tackle stomach cancer in Old Crow

A team of Alberta researchers may soon be travelling to Old Crow in a bid to help the community cope with sky-high stomach cancer rates.

A team of Alberta researchers may soon be travelling to Old Crow in a bid to help the community cope with sky-high stomach cancer rates.

Helicobacter pylori (h. pylori), a carcinogenic bacterium, has rates of infection that are twice as common in remote communities north of the Arctic circle — causing epidemic levels of stomach cancer.

In February, a team of 25 physicians, nurses and specialists from the University of Alberta were invited to Aklavik, NWT, to better understand the bacterium, and to work with the community in developing effective treatment methods.

“A fair amount has been learned about the infection in populations around the world … what hasn’t been figured out well is how to help communities deal with it,” said Karen Goodman, the team’s scientific director.

And current treatments in northern communities “don’t work very well,” said Goodman.

“A major goal for us is to find effective ways of helping the community feel satisfied that their concerns have been addressed and that they come away with a better understanding of what they’re dealing with,” she said.

When the team conducted H. pylori tests in Aklavik, 55 per cent of residents were shown to be infected — a rate roughly twice the Canadian average.

Approximately one per cent of people infected with H. pylori develop cancer of the stomach, while about five to 15 per cent end up with stomach ulcers, said team member Dr. Sander Van Zanten, in a release by the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation.

Lab work still remains to be done on the Aklavik findings — particularly regarding the types of antibiotics to which the bacterium is susceptible.

The goal is to create an effective cocktail of antibiotics for proper treatment, said Goodman.

The research team hopes to do the same thing in Old Crow as they did for Aklavik — but only if the community is on board.

The team’s work in Aklavik required intensive local participation, with over half the population voluntarily undergoing H. Pylori testing.

Last Wednesday, the researchers were invited to the International Gwich’in Gathering in Old Crow to present their findings and lay out the details of what an Old Crow-based H. pylori study would entail.

The team is expected to receive a response later in the month.

“From interactions with the community, we’re finding that there’s a positive response in having this project come to Old Crow,” said Goodman.

The H. Pylori bacterium still holds many secrets — and persistently baffles researchers as a “challenging health issue.”

At the moment, researchers aren’t even sure how the bacterium is transmitted.

“It’s not very clear cut if there’s an environmental source of it or if it’s an infection that’s strictly passed from person to person,” said Goodman.

“Which pathway it uses to enter the body is still a bit of a mystery as well,” she said.

“There may not be easy solutions, in terms of going in and getting rid of this and solving everyone’s problem — we also want the community to understand what we can do and what we can’t do.”