McMaster teams with Bell on medical robotics lab

McMaster University in Hamilton has announced the second of two private-sector partnerships that will help establish its new School of Biomedical Engineering and Health Sciences.

Bell Canada’s Bell University Laboratories

will contribute $450,000 over three years to help create an integrated systems laboratory. Bell and McMaster researchers will collaborate to study the potential for telerobotic surgery and telemedicine over the public Internet.

In late September, McMaster announced that MD Robotics, a unit of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., would invest $450,000 to help set up a medical robotics laboratory at the new school.

Mo Elbestawi, dean of engineering at McMaster, said plans for the school include eight or nine such laboratories, dealing with areas such as biophotonics, biomaterials and medical devices. Each lab will be linked to a private-sector partner, he said, and more will be announced in the next two or three months.

The graduate school is a joint project of McMaster’s Faculty of Engineering and its Faculty of Health Sciences. When it is fully operational in three to four years, Dr. Elbestawi said, the school will have 75 to 80 graduate students. McMaster has hired about a dozen new faculty members in various areas of biomedical engineering as part of its plan to create the school, he said.

Dr. Elbestawi said the new school will offer a unique blend of engineering and medical expertise. It will accept students with a background in either discipline, promote communication between the two areas and aim to produce graduates knowledgeable in both medicine and engineering. “”We’re quite fascinated about the potential for something like this,”” he said.

McMaster is establishing itself as a centre of research into telerobotic surgery. In March 2003, Dr. Mehran Anvari performed the first telerobotic surgery ever carried out over a public network from St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, which is affiliated with McMaster’s medical school. He performed acid-reflux surgery on a patient some 400 kilometres away in North Bay, Ont., using a Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) virtual private network operating over the public Internet.

Bell Canada donated $300,000 to support St. Joseph’s Healthcare’s surgical communication network last spring.

Vino Vinodrai, director of industry relations and research at Bell Canada, said the company’s researchers will work closely with their counterparts at McMaster to study what is needed to support telerobotics applications over public networks. “”What we are getting, we hope, is a learning of how these types of applications can ride on the network,”” he explained. “”We are a provider of networks, and this is one more application for the network.””

Vinodrai said Bell supports research at various Canadian universities with the intention that both the university and Bell will benefit. Among other things, the company is working with the University of Waterloo on research involving Wi-Fi and WiMAX wireless networks, collaborating with the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto on privacy issues, and investing $1 million in Alberta and British Columbia — including $250,000 already allocated to the University of British Columbia — in work on next-generation cellular network technology.

Although Bell’s initial commitment is for three years, Vinodrai said the company will review its involvement at the end of that time and may well renew the partnership for a further term.

Tim Reedman, director of operations at MD Robotics, said his company plans to work with McMaster on research aimed at developing a platform for surgical robotics, and later on other surgical robotics research projects. “”We want to use the university to help us conduct research for our medical robotics business,”” Reedman said, adding that graduates from McMaster’s biomedical engineering school will be likely candidates for jobs at MD Robotics.

Reedman said three or four hundred surgical robots are already in use, and one of their principal uses is performing surgery in parts of the body that are hard to get at without making large incisions.

MDA’s partnership with McMaster is for a 10-year period, Reedman said, and while the parties have not discussed possible renewal after that time, it would be possible.


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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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