A gift of electronic equipment from Mississauga, Ont.-based Nortel Networks Corp. will help researchers at the University of Calgary with a number of research projects,

including an effort to find a better way of diagnosing breast cancer, other health-care research and work on Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS).

The communications equipment manufacturer has donated millions of dollars worth of advanced equipment for use in engineering labs at the university. The gear includes optical spectrum analyzers, polarization scramblers, vector network analyzers and other devices. The gift includes some equipment manufactured by Nortel as well as some test equipment no longer needed in the company’s own labs, company spokeswoman Ann Fuller said.

Elise Fear, an associate professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at University of Calgary, said the equipment will be helpful in a number of projects, many of them related to health care.

One such project is aimed at using electromagnetic technology to detect breast cancer. Fear said the researchers hope to be able to detect smaller tumours than can be found with mammograms and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and also think it may be possible to distinguish benign from cancerous lesions.

Because mammography relies on differing tissue density between a tumour and the surrounding tissue, Fear said, it has some trouble detecting small tumours in patients with dense breast tissue. An electromagnetic system might do better.

The new technique might also be less uncomfortable than mammograms, and cost less and take less time than MRI scanning. Test equipment donated by Nortel is playing a role in developing a prototype, said Fear.

The university is also working on a “”Ward of the 21st Century”” project that focuses on monitoring patients’ vital signs wirelessly. Fear said this would mean that, for instance, a sensor could transmit a patient’s temperature to a nursing station at intervals. “”A nurse could monitor that from a central location, instead of having to get up and take the temperature of every patient.””

Other non-intrusive sensors might be used to monitor other vital signs and report them over a wireless network, she said.

Another area of research involves MEMS, which are devices that are manufactured in the same way as silicon chips but incorporate moving parts such as tiny switches or mirrors. “”We’re looking at building these really small devices that will accomplish functions that would normally need much larger devices today,”” Fear said. A major benefit of MEMS would be the ability to make various products smaller. Test equipment donated by Nortel is helping in this effort as well.

Other projects include work on sophisticated imaging that could like inside single cells and simulation tools for modeling the effect of electromagnetic fields on human tissue.

Nortel made a similar equipment donation to the University of British Columbia earlier this year, Fuller said, and the company has also donated equipment to the University of Texas, where it will help in research into ways of providing 911 emergency service to voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) users.

“”We focus our equipment donations to education and health care in particular,”” Fuller said, “”because they fit in very well with our own priorities.””

The donated equipment will make a difference to a number of research projects at the university, Fear said. “”We’re so lucky to have it.””

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