Researchers seek solutions to our most pressing health challenges

This story appeared in UToday on August 15, 2018.
August 15, 2018


Engineering is built on a foundation of math, physics and chemistry. Through work in one of these core subjects, or some combination of the three, engineers have been able to solve problems and forge new innovations to improve how we live. But as our health becomes an increasingly significant factor in modern life, engineers find themselves looking to another field of science to find answers.

The future is in all of us

Biology is becoming the newest and arguably most important core element of the profession’s future. The University of Calgary is at the forefront of this emerging field, making biomedical engineering (BME) one of six core research strategies across campus. Through this, the Schulich School of Engineering has fostered an impressive breadth of activity, positioning itself as a leader in the field.

“I get excited by all the possibilities of new technologies and different ways to improve the quality of life for people and animals,” says Dr. Michael Kallos, PhD, director of the Biomedical Engineering Initiative and lead of the university’s biomedical engineering strategic research theme. “I’m seeing the growth and the possibilities and understanding that there is so much we haven’t fully explored. I can see Calgary becoming the place to come for BME training and research due to the impressive activity and progress being made here on campus.”

The research strategy, called Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering, spans the campus, involving hundreds of students and faculty from engineering, medicine, science, veterinary medicine, nursing, kinesiology and many others. Kallos says the goal is to focus on projects that fall under four main themes: prevention and healthy aging; technologies for improved diagnostics; novel therapeutics and treatments; and optimization of the overall health-care system.

Using cell growth to improve recovery

Rapid cell growth isn’t usually seen as beneficial in the world of medicine. After all, fighting disease and infection is often a case of getting on top of multiplying cells before they cause irreparable damage. But one lab at the University of Calgary is finding ways to use cell growth to our advantage. Michael Kallos and his team are trying to encourage healthy stem cells to multiply in order to aid in the treatment of a host of medical issues. Kallos is a professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering and an adjunct professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), as well as a member of the CSM’s McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health and W21C affiliate.

“Sometimes we want to grow cells and keep them as stem cells,” he says, “and sometimes we want to turn them into another kind of cell for a specific application. Other times, we’ll combine the cell with a material that acts a delivery mechanism to get the cell to the right place. It’s about developing scalable processes so that if you do something small in the lab you can scale it up if you need to treat one patient from their own cells or 10,000 patients from a central source.”

Kallos says his lab has focused efforts on a variety of projects that collaborate with researchers throughout medicine, such as Dr. Derrick Rancourt, PhD, who is a professor in the departments of oncology, biochemistry and molecular biology, and medical genetics, as well as a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI), Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute and McCaig Institute. And in veterinary medicine, such as Dr. Jeff Biernaskie, PhD, a member of CSM’s ACHRI and Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI). Recent projects include growing cells that aid nerve repair and growing skin stem cells to put under skin grafts to help improve recovery for burn patients.

When thirst isn’t enough

Staying hydrated is one of the easiest ways to improve our health and ward off illness. As we get older, it plays a more critical role. Dehydration can signal the early onset of preventable health problems, making it a useful marker for health-care providers to monitor in their patients. Researchers at the University of Calgary are collaborating on a project that would allow older adults to check their hydration levels at home, using a small device that would touch their arm.

“We originally developed these really interesting microwave sensors for our breast imaging prototype,“ says Dr. Elise Fear, PhD, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and member of the CSM’s Charbonneau Institute and W21C affiliate, “The sensors are designed to operate in contact with skin, so we can position them essentially anywhere on the body. With the types of measurements we can make, my research team thought that these sensors were really well suited to seeing if we could see changes in tissue hydration levels.”

With the help of W21C, the project came about after a conversation between Fear and Dr. David Hogan, MD, a professor in the Department of Medicine, member of the CSM’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health and HBI and the Brenda Strafford Foundation Chair in Geriatric Medicine and W21C. Hogan was looking for ways to measure hydration in aging patients without the need for urine or blood samples. Along with MSc student David Garrett and kinesiology postdoc Jared Fletcher, they tested the sensors on members of the Dino’s wrestling team, some of whom lose up to two kilograms of body weight in water during each practice. Fear says the sensors were able to detect the water loss, suggesting there could soon be a way for these devices to let us all know when it’s time to put down the coffee and head for the water fountain.

Infection detection perfection

When an infectious illness strikes, we want nothing more than the quick relief antibiotics can bring. But blood tests can often take several days to determine the exact type of infection and how much of which antibiotic will do the trick. It’s a precious window that gives the invading bacteria ample time to wreak more havoc. Dr. Amir Sanati-Nezhad, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering with a joint affiliation with the Centre for Bioengineering Research and Education, and member of the CSM’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute, is collaborating with biology assistant professor Dr. Ian Lewis, PhD, a member of the Snyder Institute, to find ways to reduce that testing time from a period of two to five days down to just four to six to eight hours.

“Using a new microfluidic-mass spectrometry platform developed in our labs, we are able to quickly separate the bacteria from the blood until we have enough to identify the bacteria type and the appropriate antibiotics,” says Sanati-Nezhad. “The microfluidic device can work with extremely small samples, so instead of needing 15 to 20 millilitres of blood we can work with just two to three milliletres. The mass spectrometry gives us the ability to efficiently analyze the every aspect of the sample. Using these methods together gives us much faster results without requiring much blood from the patient.”

Sanati-Nezhad says the technology is in the final stages of development with sights set on testing clinical validation next year. That part of the project will involve working closely with Calgary Lab Services to verify results for several thousand patients before the technology can be put to use every day.

The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy drives solutions to our most pressing health challenges in disease and injury prevention, diagnosis and treatments. Our biomedical engineering researchers make a significant impact in our communities by extending lives, improving quality of life, promoting independence, and continuously improving the health system.