Province awards researchers $8.8 million

Dr. Christopher Schlachta, a departments of surgery and oncology professor at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, is one of 320 University of Western Ontario researchers receiving funds from the Ontario Research Fund. The funding will support Schlachta’s research in developing simulation-based training for surgeons, such as for laparoscopic surgery.

Laparoscopic surgery is not a game to Dr. Christopher Schlachta, but he is using gaming technology, such as virtual reality, to teach future surgeons how to refine their skills and reduce medical error in the operating room.

Schlachta, departments of surgery and oncology professor at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, is one of 320 University of Western Ontario researchers receiving approximately $8.8 million in support from the Ontario Research Fund (ORF). Schlachta’s research received a $3.2 million operating grant.

On Wednesday, Khalil Ramal, MPP London-Fanshawe, announced the funding for Western researchers on behalf of the Ministry of Research and Innovation at an event held at the Claudette MacKay-Lassonde Pavilion Atrium.

Such a significant number of successful grants for Western researchers – second only to the University of Toronto in the dollar amount – shows the caliber of talent in the area, Ramal says.

“In the end, these researchers will lead us to a brighter future and lead us in the technological era in which we have to be competitive. We have to lead and be able to compete nationally and globally,” he says.

Schlachta plans to use the funds to support the operating costs of his research.

“We are very grateful for the Ontario government to recognizing the value of the research we do here and the benefit it is going to have both in terms of its impact on creating new jobs, supporting private industry and improving quality of health care,” he says.

Introducing virtual reality simulators into the training process will allow doctors-in-training to refine their skills without risking a patient’s life.

“The way we train researchers and doctors now is a 150-year-old model, and it’s basically an apprenticeship model,” he says. “That’s a very effective model and we have very good health care in Canada. However, one of the downsides of that approach is they are learning on you.

“We are very concerned about things like safety, and medical error and the cost of training. What we are planning to achieve through this research is to develop new technologies that are going to allow us to train students, residents, surgeons on computer-based virtual reality simulators so they will already be at a fixed level of competence before they touch their first patient.”

The goal is to improve dramatically safety of care and provide more efficient training and better quality of training and care, he explains.

In addition, Schlachta and his team will be working with industry partners to develop the technology for the virtual reality simulators, define a curriculum for training surgeons and validate the technology to make sure that it is not only “cool” but also effective.

In addition to Schlachta, two other Western researchers received seven-figure awards. Chemical and biochemical engineering professor Franco Berruti was granted $1 million to support the development of technologies to convert pulp and paper byproducts and forestry waste into green fuels and chemicals for global markets. Mechanical and materials engineering professor Jeffrey Wood was awarded $2.4 million to help develop new lightweight polymer composites aimed at giving Ontario’s auto industry a technological edge.

ORF is a competitive process, notes Ted Hewitt, vice-president (research & international relations), adding when looking at the amount of grants awarded to Western per research base, the university comes out on top in the province for the most ORF grants.

“You are going to see through these projects, which have such strong industry links, jobs will be created through this program,” Hewitt says. “These are great investments for the future.”

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