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City - Ottawa Citizen Online

Thursday 29 October 1998

HOT clinic, hot debate

Plans to open a hyperbaric oxygen therapy clinic in Ottawa to treat cancer patients has some doctors worried. Maria Bohuslawsky reports.

Maria Bohuslawsky
The Ottawa Citizen

Wayne Hiebert, The Ottawa Citizen / Bill O'Neill expects 2,000 to 6,000 patients a year will visit his hyperbaric oxygen therapy clinic on Richmond Road in Ottawa West.

A controversial cancer patient advocate plans to open a clinic next April in Ottawa that will offer hyperbaric oxygen therapy to people with cancer.

Bill O'Neill, who runs the Canadian Cancer Research Group, says the clinic will also treat cerebral palsy, burns, head injuries and multiple sclerosis.

"We would be introducing hyperbaric oxygen therapy to increase immune system function," says Mr. O'Neill.

"It's part of an overall program that has a likelihood of achieving cancer remission."

Hyperbaric medicine uses oxygen inhaled at high air pressure in special chambers. Some people believe it can promote healing by overcoming oxygen starvation in tissues.

The clinic, to be located in a Richmond Road strip mall in Ottawa's west end, will also provide vaccine therapy for cancer patients.

Mr. O'Neill says immunotherapy, a controversial and experimental treatment, helps fight cancer by boosting the immune system. He now arranges for clients to get the vaccines in the United States.

Hyperbaric oxygen, he said, will be used to enhance vaccine therapy, as well as conventional treatments such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

Mr. O'Neill expects 2,000 to 6,000 patients a year, and will likely charge about $100 an hour for the oxygen therapy.

Mr. O'Neill's clinic is part of a growing public movement to get hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HOT) for conditions that doctors refuse to treat with it, because it hasn't been proven with scientific research.

Yvette Serpellini, whose daughter has cerebral palsy, started a non-profit foundation last month to raise $300,000 to buy a second chamber for Ottawa.

Although there is a chamber at the Ottawa Hospital's General site, it is used to treat wounds, radiation burns from cancer treatment, carbon-monoxide poisoning and decompression sickness in deep-sea divers.

Doctors at the General site have promised to do a study on cerebral palsy children if the foundation buys the chamber.

Mrs. Serpellini says Mr. O'Neill's chamber is good news for children with cerebral palsy if it is safely run by a trained doctor.

"If we can get him to do research, that's great," she adds.

"We need to establish once and for all whether this treatment actually works."

Meanwhile, a group of entrepreneurs from Vancouver is planning to open a private hyperbaric oxygen clinic in Ottawa next June.

They will treat stroke, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy -- conditions that are treated with HOT in England and the U.S. but not here.

"There's so much enthusiasm for this right now," says Bruce Perkins, whose company Hyperbaric Oxygenation Corp., is opening Canada's first private hyperbaric clinic in Vancouver next month.

CP patients will typically undergo 30 one-hour sessions at $100 a session.

While doctors treat cancer patients with oxygen therapy for wounds and burns from surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, they don't use it to treat the cancer itself.

"Cancer isn't a disease that occurs because of a lack of oxygen to tissue," says Dr. Phil Hamilton, who runs the chamber at the General. "There's no evidence that it affects the type of cells that are involved in cancer immunity, to my knowledge."

Dr. Hamilton warned there are risks. For example, a lung cancer patient who also has lung disease, could suffer a ruptured lung from HOT and die.

"I know of no evidence that this is going to boost the immune system," adds Dr. Chaim Birnboim, a scientist at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre.

"The thing that would concern me is that people will bypass conventional therapy that could help them," he says. "Cancer is a very complicated disease."

But Mr. O'Neill says scientific literature shows that chronic diseases result after environmental toxins build up and deprive cells of oxygen.

HOT can help cancer by increasing blood cells, including white blood cells, that are part of the immune system, he says.

"The same sorts of elements of the immune system that resolve the burns, enhance one's ability to manage their cancer," he says.

He says HOT could also help prevent cancer and other chronic diseases because it improves organ functions, helping a person deal better with environmental toxins.

Mr. O'Neill, who is not a doctor, said he is screening physicians who will be involved with the centre. They will receive training in the U.S. from the company he buys or leases a chamber from. He is looking at a $250,000 chamber that seats four.

The $500,000 needed to set up the centre will come partly from his company, he said. He is also setting up a foundation for people to make donations.

Mr. O'Neill said he hopes to provide data that will demonstrate the effectiveness of HOT and could be used to persuade OHIP to pay.

Mr. O'Neill's company has provided more than 5,000 cancer patients with information on new research and treatment options, ranging from mainstream to alternative. He charges $750 for research and a report.

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