Shaping Canada’s future with transformative health technologies

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Canada is facing a health-care crisis with escalating costs, shortage of health-care professionals, and increasing needs from a diverse and aging population. Researchers at the University of Waterloo are responding to these challenges with innovative solutions to enable equitable access to care and drive Canada’s next wave of economic growth.

A new initiative, Transformative Health Technologies (THT), involves partnerships with academic institutions, health-care centres, networks and service providers, industry, non-profits and the public sector, to shape the future of health using technology that can touch, know and connect with people.

“It is critical for Canada to be focused on HealthTech innovation at this time,” says Catherine Burns, Associate Vice-President, Health Initiatives and Canada Research Chair in Human Factors and Healthcare Systems and founder of the Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology, University of Waterloo.

“In the future, I see our health-care workers working with greater assistance from technology. I see services that are currently offered in the hospitals being offered in peoples’ homes. I see people living in their homes longer with the benefit of technology and I see people having longer, healthier and happier lives. Our goal is to create collaborative relationships between researchers and industry that will benefit society for years to come.”

Within the THT initiative, a partnership with Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) University will be advanced that also benefits society by supporting remote, rural, and Indigenous communities and collaborations.

Better understanding of disease with transformative quantum technologies

Another group of diverse thinkers and innovators are focused on Transformative Quantum Technologies.

Raffi Budakian, lead investigator at the Nanoscale Magnetic Resonance Imaging lab, along with his team is developing a technique to take MRI capabilities down to the atomic scale. This new imaging technique called nuclear magnetic resonance diffraction (NMRd) is a powerful tool for analyzing materials with a crystalline structure such as proteins.

“NMRd makes it possible to create imaging modalities that provide greater structural information compared to existing techniques,” says Professor Budakian. “At a high level, this work could be used to develop quantum technologies to study protein structure and dynamics, as understanding the structure of proteins is vital to drug development.”

This includes biologically relevant samples of virus particles and proteins and gaining a clear image of these materials could have an immense impact on medicine, from better treatment to a deeper understanding of complex biomolecules.

Next steps include putting the new NMRd technique through extensive testing. With support from Transformative Quantum Technologies at Waterloo, Professor Budakian’s miniscule imaging technique is poised to drive significant impacts on the future of human health and well-being.

New technology has potential to improve cancer screening

A new form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that makes cancerous tissue glow in medical images could help health-care providers more accurately detect and track the progression of cancer over time.

"Our studies show this new technology has promising potential to improve cancer screening, prognosis and treatment planning," says Alexander Wong, professor of systems design engineering at Waterloo and Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence and Medical Imaging.

In the largest study of its kind, the researchers collaborated with medical experts at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, several Toronto hospitals and the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research to apply the technology to a cohort of 200 patients with prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer was targeted first in the research project as it is the second most common cancer in men worldwide and the most frequently diagnosed cancer among men in more developed countries.

"We also have very promising results for breast cancer screening, detection, and treatment planning. Compared to standard MRI techniques, this technology was better at delineating significant cancerous tissues making it a potentially powerful tool for doctors and radiologists and could be a game-changer for many kinds of cancer imaging and clinical decision support," says Professor Wong.

Building a portable brain scanner to help first responders and doctors diagnose strokes quickly

Fast identification and early treatment of a stroke can mean the difference between a speedy recovery and a lasting brain injury or even death.

A new company, AiimSense, co-founded by Atefeh Zarabadi and Mohammad Chavoshi, is set to give health-care professionals a revolutionary tool for detecting strokes and other brain injuries – a portable brain scanner that could be used before a patient reaches the hospital. Rapid detection can have a significant impact on determining early treatment regimens which is critical for strokes.  

“Along with the rapid diagnosis of strokes, we see application for the portable scanner in other brain diseases like tumours and traumatic brain injuries,” Zarabadi said. “Our vision is to make it so brain scans can be accessible and practical as part of any brain health screening.” 

Zarabadi and Chavoshi say they are currently transitioning from preclinical to the clinical trial stage.

“There is more work ahead, but in the end, what motivates me the most is knowing that my work is going to help people to access medical imaging regardless of their socio-economic status,” says Zarabadi.

Launched in 2019, AiimSense is currently at Velocity.