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UPDATED: Wed May 3, 2000 03:43 AM  |  Four Day Forecast

Support grows for centre

Jon Wells
The Hamilton Spectator; The Spectator

The vacant courthouse at 50 Main Street East is a potential site if a new alternative medicine centre gets the go ahead.

(Allan) Rock

Signs are pointing to the establishment of a first-of-its-kind alternative medicine research institute in the vacant courthouse at 50 Main Street East, perhaps this year. Hamilton East MP Sheila Copps said momentum is building for the proposed project, which would see McMaster University partner with the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, backed by $100 million in federal money over five years, along with private sector partners.

It would be called the Institute of Comprehensive Medicine.

Copps and representatives from McMaster meet with federal health department officials next week to discuss plans and funding.

Yesterday, a spokesman for Health Minister Allan Rock said they are interested in the project, but funding is still at issue.

Copps said that through Rock's department and other funding sources, "we're hoping we can get this going this fiscal year."

Rent is one item that won't be a cost. Hamilton-Wentworth Chairman Terry Cooke has offered McMaster free use of the courthouse for the institute.

Dennis Mills, a former Hamilton resident and now Toronto-area MP who has joined Copps in the campaign, is certain it will open in downtown Hamilton.

"I'd bet my (House of Commons) seat on it," he said, adding that the alternative medicine centre will be "the best in the world."

Copps declined to match Mills's offer.

"I did that once before and I'm not doing it again," she said, laughing, referring to her pledge on scrapping the GST that forced her to resign her seat and run for re-election.

A partnership between a high-profile medical university like McMaster, and a college devoted to teaching naturopathic medicine, would represent a great leap forward for alternative medicine -- typically called "complimentary medicine" by those who practice it.

Complimentary medicine products include everything from herbal remedies like St. John's wort and ginkgo biloba, to acupuncture and chiropractic treatments.

In short, it is medicine that, while in some cases boasting a long historical pedigree, comes up short in the arena of conventional scientific, evidence-based testing.

Mainstream physicians and pharmacists have long derided alternative medicine as unproven, but it hasn't stopped the public from embracing it.

Some estimates say about 50 per cent of Canadians use alternative medicine products. Sales of these products in Canada grew at a staggering annual rate of between 20 and 25 per cent in the 1990s. In Ontario, about one million people visit a chiropractor every year.

Copps suggested it's time research in the field of alternative medicine caught up with the public's hunger for it.

She agreed that hard evidence on the effectiveness of alternative medicine is slim.

"It is, and that's all part of this project -- there's been no mechanism to test the evidence."

Dr. Russell Joffe, dean of McMaster's faculty of health sciences, said the institute's mission will be to research alternative medicines and treatments, but also focus on a broad range of issues surrounding prevention of illness rather than treatment, including such things as lifestyle and diet.

In terms of alternative medicine, he said that many treatments and products are based on anecdotal, not scientific, proof, but that's where the institute can enrich the body of knowledge.

"Rather than saying, 'it's just anecdotal and therefore nonsense,' it would be far better for us to apply rigorous scientific methodology to it."

He added that some long-standing alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, are clearly effective, even if mainstream medicine has shunned them.

The institute would go beyond the role played by the Office of Natural Health Products, established last year in Health Canada's protection branch to monitor the claims and safety of alternative products on the market.

The office is still in the early stages of gathering data. But it will not be submitting herbal remedies and other alternative medicines to the same strenuous, time-consuming regulatory testing that must be met by all new pharmaceutical drugs.

The courthouse, which is owned by the Region of Hamilton-Wentworth, is McMaster's first choice to house the institute. In private talks with Copps, McMaster University president Peter George and others, regional chairman Terry Cooke offered it up for free, with the condition that all future use must be for academic purposes.

The cost of renovating the building must also be covered by McMaster and other parties involved, not the region.

Cooke was pleased to hear word of Copps' optimism on the project, but said he has seen nothing in writing.

"But if (Copps) can deliver on this thing, it will have a significant positive impact on this community, particularly on downtown, and I welcome whatever we can do in terms of availability of the courthouse or other amenities to help it happen."

There are many other parties that hold interest in the project. The North York-based Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine is anticipating growth in demand for its programs, and is looking to expand with a Hamilton campus.

Its proposal to the federal government is for $30 million over five years to establish the Hamilton branch, which would feature a home-grown botanical program to study herbal medicine.

Copps said there is also a proposal from the Royal Botanical Gardens to build a botanical facility.

Mills said one idea he's heard is to build a football-field size facility somewhere in downtown Hamilton, with one-third of the property used as a greenhouse-like facility to grow herbs "for healing and health."

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