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Angels in the auditorium

Toronto, June 3, 2016

By Geoff Koehler

TV has the Dragons' Den and Shark Tank but St. Michael’s Hospital has the Angels' Den and zebrafish tanks.

What does any of this have to do with health care?

Even though the new federal government increased funding for research in its first budget this spring, scientists will still tell you it’s still challenging to cobble together funds to develop innovative health-care solutions and bring them to patients’ bedsides faster.

“So we did some brainstorming, some thinking outside the beaker,” said Dr. Arthur Slutsky, vice-president of Research at St. Michael’s. “How could we fund some cutting-edge research and at the same time show that science can be fun?!”

The St. Michael’s Foundation reached out to donors and established a $1-million Translational Innovation Fund. But there was a catch. Any research team—made up of one researcher and one clinician—who wanted to apply for the money had to be willing to pitch their case to an Angels' Den panel of judges (minus a Kevin O’Leary character).

After two rounds of clinical and scientific review, more than 40 teams were pared down to 10. Each of those 10 teams received $50,000 of funding for their translational, innovative project and earned a spot in the Angels’ Den.

“At the Angels’ Den, these incredible researchers and clinicians competed for additional research funding prizes worth a total of $105,000,” said Gwen Harvey, co-chair of the Angels’ Den. “First prize was $40,000 and second and third prizes were for $25,000.”

First and second prizes also come with additional funding to cover expenses to an invitation-only competition hosted in Calgary by the Global Healthcare Innovation Academy.

Dr. Karen Cross and Dr. General Leung
First-prize winners Drs. Karen Cross and General Leung are working on developing an early warning tool for diabetic foot ulcers.

The winning project was MIMOSA (MultIspectral Mobile tissue Assessment). It’s an early warning tool Dr. Karen Cross, a surgeon, and Dr. General Leung, a physicist and medical imaging researcher, are developing. This device takes pictures of tissue using different “colours” of infrared light.

“By comparing these pictures, we can see the extent of blood and tissue damage in the legs and feet of patients with diabetes,” said Dr. Leung, who is an associate scientist with the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s.

Drs. Cross and Leung hope the device could eventually integrate with a cell phone, giving patients the ability to “check their feet” for early signs of tissue problems.

“Canadians with diabetes are 23 times more likely than the general population to end up in the hospital for a leg amputation because of a diabetic foot ulcer,” said Dr. Cross, who is also an associate scientist with St. Michael’s Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science. “These patients lack feeling in their feet because of poor blood flow, so something as simple as a wrinkle in a sock can cause a blister that turns into a wound in the skin.”

Second prize at the Angels’ Den was taken by Drs. Christer Sinderby and Laurent Brochard—two leaders in mechanical ventilation, or machine-assisted breathing, for critically ill patients. The two scientists with the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science are developing a tool that would help rid the body of carbon dioxide when breathing with life support.

“Our device has been impressive in the lab and we would like to design and test a version compatible for use in intensive care units,” said Dr. Brochard, who is also Keenan Chair in Critical Care and Respiratory Medicine.

Third prize went to two scientists with the hospital’s Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute. Dr. Sharmistha Mishra, an infectious disease doctor, and Dr. Wanrudee Isaranuwatchai, director of the Centre for exceLlence in Economic Analysis Research (CLEAR) of St. Michael’s, will be developing a tool to help countries make decisions during an outbreak, such as Ebola.

Dr. Art Slutsky, vice-president of Research at St. Michael’s, Angels' Den co-chair Gwen Harvey, first-prize winners Drs. General Leung and Karen Cross, and Angels’ Den co-chair John Hunkin
(Left to right) Dr. Art Slutsky, vice-president of Research at St. Michael’s, Angels' Den co-chair Gwen Harvey, first-prize winners Drs. General Leung and Karen Cross, and Angels’ Den co-chair John Hunkin.

“In Sierra Leone, we found ourselves struggling to screen people for Ebola because the screening questions we were asking weren’t effective but no one had the data needed to change the questions in the moment,” said Dr. Mishra, who worked on the frontlines in Sierra Leone during the West Africa Ebola outbreak. “We will develop a computer algorithm that can be applied to any infectious disease outbreak, which will project the costs and value of making a decision based on “what we know now” instead of waiting for more and better data.”

More than 200 people attended St. Michael’s second Angels’ Den event, filling the Allan Waters Family Auditorium in the Keenan Research Centre of the hospital’s Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute.

“St. Michael’s has always been fortunate to have committed friends who tirelessly support hospital priorities,” said John Hunkin, co-chair of the Angels’ Den. “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.”

While the jurors voted on the overall winners, every member of the audience was able to vote for an Angel’s Choice award. The audience agreed with the jury and the $5,000-award also went to Drs. Cross and Leung.

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.