NSERC awards Waterloo faculty member $1.65-M for new biomedical technology program

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Catherine Burns (Photo Credit: University of Waterloo)

Medical innovations improve and save lives. It for this reason that Canada invests so heavily into the health and life sciences. But when it comes to health technology, innovative designs like prosthetic limbs or pacemakers must be designed by a special type of engineer – one who solve engineering problems and can identify medical technology needs.  

Catherine Burns, professor of systems design engineering and executive director of the Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology, has been awarded a Collaborative Research and Training Experience Program (CREATE) grant to establish a biomedical engineering graduate program that will help produce this type of engineer. The $1.65 million grant awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) will help fund a new program in global biomedical technology research and innovation at Waterloo starting in the fall of 2018, the only one of its kind in Canada.

“Most students come out of biomedical engineering graduate programs as great researchers, but not necessarily with a good understanding of how the industry works. This program will produce students who know both the research side and the business side of the industry,” says professor Burns.

To understand the needs of medical technology users, students will get out into the field to work alongside clinicians and patients to better understand real-life scenarios before developing solutions.

Grand River Hospital is one of the partners to the program, as well as Starfish Medical and Synaptive Medical – both of which are very successful Canadian medical device companies.

The curriculum at Waterloo will include clinic and industry internships, commercialization courses, international exchanges, and professional skills workshops. Students will graduate knowing how to work with patients and clinicians with understanding of medical device regulation. They will also have the skills and industry contacts in place to help secure jobs in the biomedical industry or commercialize their own inventions.

“The technical expertise, professional skills, and interdisciplinary experience students gain in this program will produce biomedical engineers capable of transforming the Canadian health technology landscape,” says Charmaine Dean, vice-president, university research. “It’s also another step in growing Waterloo’s role in the biotechnology and research ecosystem.”

There is a proposed initiative for the program at Toronto Western Hospital, where a Critical Care physician manages a large amount of data on brain injuries. The goal would be to integrate the data with data from laboratory and patient records, which will provide new insights into the complex physiological relationships in brain injury patients. Students in the program will work with the physician to acquire an understanding of brain injuries, and then develop a data integration solution.

Each student will be part of a team that includes a research supervisor, a clinician, and the manager of a biomedical engineering company. Before commencing their research, students will need to prove that they’ve spent time with clinicians and patients in settings relevant to their area of research. This will help ensure that the solutions they develop are viable and easier to commercialise.

Overall, this one-of-a-kind program will continue to make Canada an economic powerhouse and punch above its weight in health and life sciences.

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