Christmas came early for Western University Friday (Dec. 13) as London North Centre MPP Deb Matthews announced $7.4 million in research grants for her alma mater.
The funding will be split between six research teams, five based at Western’s Robarts Research Institute and one at Lawson Research Institute, the joint research arm of London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) and St. Joseph’s Health Care.
“Research in London is going to change the lives of people internationally,” Matthews said.
The cash comes from the Ontario Research Fund – Research Infrastructure program and will provide more than 200 principal investigators and research assistants and even more undergrad students with the tools they need to stay on the cutting edge of research and development, according to Robarts researcher Dr. David Holdsworth.
He said because the “timely” funding goes toward infrastructure, it will continue to benefit scientists and students for years to come.
According to Lawson’s scientific director Dr. David Hill the potentially huge return on investment (ROI) on research funding can be detailed down to the dime for many projects at Robarts.
As an example, he said an investment in software for CT scanners that allowed doctors to see what parts of the brain were savable more quickly created a seven-to-10-fold ROI between 2000 and 2011.
Factoring hospital uptake of the technology, the benefit to the patient and how many patients benefitted, minus cost to implement the technology and the cost of the scans, the net benefit was an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 years of added life for Canadians, the increased productivity of which contributed a net $100 million to the economy.
“And that’s just in Canada,” he said. “This technology is used worldwide.”
Another technology going worldwide in 2014 is the 3D printer. Smaller versions of the fabricating machines print with plastic, but Robarts is home to the only one in Canada that can create objects such as custom implants and prosthetics out of medical-grade metals including titanium, stainless steel, aluminum and cobalt blue.
The printer can create devices from new designs that are more lightweight, stronger, porous or smooth depending on the application.
Western is one of the few universities in North America with an industrial-grade printer, specifically a Sinterstation Pro PM 125, purchased with a grant from the 2011-12 infrastructure fund intake. Normally the printers are only found in the private sector.
About $1.3 million of the funding Matthews announced went toward the creation of a multi-discipline bone and joint imaging facility with the long-term goal of reducing the burden of arthritis and bone disorders on Ontarians.
Those images become the blueprint for the personalized implant created by the printer. To show off what the technology can do, Holdsworth had a metal replica of a mouse skeleton created – from an image taken of a live mouse.
Matthews, who humbly joked she had no idea what she was reading as she read aloud the summaries of each research project, had a lot of enthusiastic questions for Holdsworth in the 3D printer lab.
And though she walked in with a Santa sack of grants, she didn’t get back out the doors without one more request from Holdsworth, who asked the health minister to help Robarts clear the federal regulatory hurdles between creating a prototype and commercializing a product that can be sold on the open market.
He said colleagues in orthopedics would use a new product “immediately” if it were available.
“I desperately want help to get this out of the basement,” he told Matthews after a quick 3D printer tutorial, noting he wasn’t trying to circumvent Health Canada. “Metal printing is something where if you fall behind, you’re going to miss the boat. We can be at the leading edge of this if we can master the regulatory hurdles.”
Matthews responded she would put Holdsworth in touch with the right people, and would try to facilitate where she could.
“They need to understand this is real-time, we don’t have years to work through a process,” she said.