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Sixty minutes of science

Toronto, July 2, 2015

By Geoff Koehler

Attendees at St. Michael’s inaugural Angels’ Den event
Attendees at St. Michael’s inaugural Angels’ Den event.

In less than an hour on June 24, 2015, attendees at St. Michael’s inaugural Angels’ Den event learned about 10 research projects that may one day have an impact on patient care. There was $100,000 in research funding available for the three teams who could best convey their projects’ importance to a lay audience in three minutes or less.

“St. Michael’s is trying to speed up knowledge translation by bringing researchers and clinicians together in a friendly competition…for research funding,” said Dr. Arthur Slutsky, vice-president of Research at St. Michael’s Hospital and co-chair of the Angels’ Den event. “The hospital’s best and brightest scientific and clinical talent were asked to team up and share their most promising ideas.”

To enter, each team had to be comprised of at least one scientist and one clinician. St. Michael’s Foundation established a $1-million Translational Innovation Fund to support this competition over two years.

Forty proposals were submitted and, after a scientific review, 10 teams were selected to share equally in this year’s $500,000 prize.

“Narrowing the field was done on scientific merit, but the competition didn’t stop there,” said John Hunkin, St. Michael’s Foundation board director and co-chair of the event.


Watch the presentations from the inaugural Angels’ Den event.
Watch on YouTube

Each of the 10 winning research teams pitched their project to the Angels’ Den jury—comprised of contributors to the innovation fund.

“St. Michael’s has always been fortunate to have committed friends who tirelessly support hospital priorities,” said Hunkin. “A night like this would not have been possible without the visionary donors whose generosity has made this fund –and many new potential research breakthroughs– possible.”

The grand prize of the Angels’ Den evening was an additional $40,000. Two runner up teams awarded an additional $30,000.


Grand prize winner

LifeVest: Helping babies breathe
     Jennifer Beck, scientist, Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science
     Doug Campbell, director, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

Newborns born prematurely or with very low birth weight may require specialized hospital care in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Issues are compounded for premature babies who have underdeveloped lungs and weak respiratory muscles. For such critically ill newborns, respiratory support with a mechanical ventilator is a life-saving treatment.

Delivering that mechanical ventilation is easier said than done, however. There is evidence that inserting a tube into the baby’s windpipe to deliver air should be avoided. And although delivering air through the nostrils has been recommended, continued use of nasal devices can cause skin breakdown and permanent damage to the nose.

The proposal was a new negative-pressure method to improve breathing. An infant would wear a vest (similar to a life jacket), and the ventilator would pull gently on the chest by applying negative pressure. In concept, this is similar to the old-fashioned iron lung, but the materials will be lightweight and suitable for babies’ sensitive skin.


Runner ups:

Surviving Sepsis: Saving Lives with Stem Cells
     Gerard Curley, clinician scientist, Department of Anesthesiology
     Katalin Szaszi, scientist, Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science

Sepsis is a life-threatening complication of an infection. Chemicals released by white blood cells into the bloodstream fight infection but can trigger damaging inflammatory responses—including multiple-organ failure and death.

White blood cells can become exhausted after their initial immune response to sepsis. When this occurs, the white blood cells lose their ability to fight the invading bacteria.

Mesenchymal stem/stromal cells—taken from adult bone marrow—offer significant hope as a therapy for sepsis. This project is designed to improve researchers’ understanding of whether stem cells can enhance bacterial killing by boosting healthy immune cells.


Using MRI to predict kidney failure
     Anish Kirpalani, director, MRI Research Centre
     Darren Yuen, clinician scientist, Division of Nephrology

In the first year after surgery, transplanted kidneys generally do very well, but their long-term prognosis is unfortunately not as good. Up to 60 per cent of kidney transplant recipients have damage after 10 years but clinicians have no way of identifying which patients are more likely to be high risk for kidney failure.

The current “gold standard” test for damage after transplant requires a needle biopsy. This biopsy only samples a very small part of the kidney, does not detect damage until it is at a very late stage, and has associated risks, including serious internal bleeding.

The project proposed looking at testing transplant kidneys using magnetic resonance imaging, using MRI to measure organ stiffness. Stiffness is important, because it is an early sign of scarring. Scarring is irreversible kidney damage that can cause ongoing kidney injury and deterioration.

The study will evaluate whether MRI can be used to accurately measure kidney scarring in patients who are going to have a biopsy. Unlike biopsy, the MRI test does not require needles or injections, and can analyze the whole organ for scarring, rather than a small sample taken by biopsy.


To learn more about all ten projects, click here.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.