Left to right: Bernard Bressler, Bill Barrable, Prof. Yaakov Nahmias, the Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jonathan Miodowski, Dina Wachtel, the Hon. Bruce Ralston and Rick Glumac. (photo from Rick Hansen Institute)
On Aug. 25 in Vancouver, the Rick Hansen Institute (RHI) announced a new partnership with the Hebrew University’s Alexander Grass Centre for Bioengineering. The first of its kind in the world, this partnership will fast-track the development of products designed to improve the lives of people who have been devastated by spinal cord injuries (SCI).
Bioengineering uses scientific concepts and methods to find practical, cost-effective solutions to problems in the life sciences. Researchers investigate ways to regenerate damaged tissue, grow new organs or mimic the systems and processes of the human body with synthetic tools. In the case of individuals with SCI, this means combating the paralysis caused by a serious injury.
According to the RHI, in British Columbia alone, there are 12,000 people living with an SCI. “The economic burden is an estimated $372 million a year for new traumatic spinal cord injuries: this figure includes direct healthcare (59%) as well as indirect morbidity and mortality related (41%) costs,” says the RHI. “Secondary complications such as pressure ulcers, neuropathic pain, urinary tract infections and pneumonia cost an estimated $70 million in direct costs to B.C.’s healthcare system annually.”
The Grass Centre’s Biodesign program teaches researchers, business and bioengineering graduates how to make medical innovations commercially available. Recent innovations at the centre include a device that inserts chest tubes. The device prevents lung collapse in under a minute and saves lives in the battlefield and the emergency room. The centre also has developed pressure-sensing socks that can tell when patients with diabetes are in pain, prevent foot ulcers and communicate health data to smartphones. More than 130 million people suffer from diabetes-related pain worldwide.
Bill Barrable, chief executive officer of the RHI, described Rick Hansen’s long association and warm relationship with Israel. Hansen traveled there on his Man in Motion tour many years ago and he also received an honorary degree from the Hebrew University. Barrable accompanied Hansen on that latter visit.
Barrable spoke of the new partnership as being designed to “grow the next generation of medical research entrepreneurs.” These entrepreneurs will create intellectual property that can be sold commercially within one year, a goal he described as “extraordinary.” In addition to the profound impact it will have on patients, Barrable sees the project as a way to strengthen innovation in British Columbia.
Prof. Yaakov Nahmias is the director of the Grass Centre. After co-founding the Biodesign program at HU with Hadassah Medical Centre and Stanford University, four new medical devices were launched under his leadership – in the program’s first year. Referencing Israel’s reputation as a “start-up nation,” Nahmias touched on the 2009 book Start-up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, which explores how it is that a small, embattled country like Israel has more tech start-ups than any other. Speaking of the student body at the Grass Centre, Nahmias described a population that is mature, self-sufficient and has a rich life experience. Having completed school and their mandatory military service, Israeli grads also have traveled the world and worked while pursuing their undergraduate studies. He described a group that did not want to continue their research work as academics, but as entrepreneurs. The Biodesign program enabled them to do this. Its multi-disciplinary, team-based approach to medical innovation is also unique, according to Nahmias, “because it leverages the diversity we see in Israel.” The program is host to groups led by Palestinians from East Jerusalem and ultra-Orthodox rabbis alike, he said. The program’s success, he added, was owed to the creativity and talent of this diverse group.
In concert with the fiery, boundary-pushing Israelis, Nahmias said Canadian researchers would bring “people with vision, people who would set the course and know how to treat patients and solve problems in everyday life. But we also want to have agitators, people who would rock the bridge and say, ‘that’s not good enough!’ These are the people we have in Israel. And this is why this partnership is unique.”
B.C. Minister of Jobs, Trade and Technology Bruce Ralston spoke highly of Israel’s capacity for innovation. Looking forward to seeing stronger ties develop between the technology sectors of Israel and British Columbia, Ralston said he sees this partnership as a way to “restore and bolster our commitment to research in a way that attracts top-flight talent back to B.C.”
Also joining in the announcement, which was made at the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre, at Vancouver General Hospital was the Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould. In her capacity as federal justice minister, she applauded the new initiative, describing SCI patient care as “a human rights issue.”
Also in attendance was Bernard Bressler, director of the board of Canada-Israel Industrial Research and Development Foundation. Bressler praised the partners for going beyond academic research to make life-altering technologies. “The partnership creates an environment where creative ideas, difficult problems and entrepreneurial mentorship can interact in a structured way,” he said.
Speaking after the event, John Chernesky, RHI’s consumer engagement lead, commented, “What excites me most is the prospect of new devices that allow people with paralysis to complete ordinary tasks, even something as simple as using an arm to manipulate their environment. Spinal cord injuries can affect every part of a person’s body. The implications [of a program like this] are tremendous.”
Dina Wachtel, executive director of Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, Western Region, said the program created “a living bridge upon which a scientist from Canada will spend time in Israel with the start-up nation and, once they trigger the process, as a team, and have the beginning of a device, they can bring it back to B.C. for further development.”
Shula Klinger is an author, illustrator and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at niftyscissors.com.