At an age when many are deciding what to do with their lives, a then-20-year-old Wagner Souza found himself considering the end of his.
“When I was in my journalism program as an undergrad, I got sick. I got deadly sick,” said Souza, now 36. “All of my doctors were very concerned that I might not make it.”
Diagnosed with two strong auto-immune disorders presenting leukemia-like symptoms, Souza required 13 pills a day to keep him alive from 2004-06. Then, a German company developed an immunomodulatory and offered him hope.
“I was dying until my doctor said, ‘There’s a new drug. It’s one shot and you’ll take it every two weeks.’ It made a huge difference.”
Souza’s experience left him motivated to help other patients dealing with pain, to give them control over their illness in an effort to help them get better. Today, he is fulfilling that desire as a Western Medical Innovation Fellow.
“I promised myself if I ever survived, I would help people through everything I learned,” he said. “I would use my experience as a patient to my advantage and the advantage of those who need my help.”
As he healed, Souza completed a physical therapy program at The Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil. In that program, he developed a passion for technology. He started using virtual reality to help stroke patients with balance control. What he found was over a month of therapy, patients progressed dramatically.
“For people who cannot walk independently, if they see themselves walking in a virtual-reality field they will develop an engagement, an excitement not commonly seen in neurorehabilitation – this is going to change things for them,” he said. “I wanted people to feel excited and optimistic about therapy.”
After graduating with a master’s degree in neurorehabilitation, Souza started his PhD in the Neuroscience Integrated Program at McGill University. It was during his last year when he learned about the Medical Innovation Fellowship program.
“It was fascinating to me – I wanted the amazing opportunity to work together with people in a different field, with different backgrounds.”
Operated by WORLDiscoveries, in partnership with BrainsCAN, the Medical Innovation Fellowship Program is a multidisciplinary program that immerses early career scientists, engineers and clinicians in training and research environments where they work together to create novel medical technologies.
The program includes classroom training, clinical immersion experience and time to develop prototype solutions by working with researchers, clinicians and technology transfer offices. BrainsCAN, the university’s cognitive neuroscience research initiative, became a partner of the program in 2017 to generate innovation and entrepreneurial skill development in the field of cognitive neuroscience.
“Neuroscience is a field that integrates many of the other fields in health care,” Souza said. “For neuroscientists and people working in neuroscience to be within this context – where you can collaborate with different professionals, where you can be exposed to different settings and have these insights altogether – this is an amazing way to speed up the process of translating information into real solutions and practice.”
The current Medical Innovation Fellowship cohort includes Souza along with five other fellows who have backgrounds in neuroscience, biomedical engineering, computer science, kinesiology and medicine. The 2019-20 program began in July, and will end in May 2020 with the goal to produce technology projects that will result in medical startups.
For Souza, his goal is to help people.
“I come with the perspective of the patient in the first place. What I care about is how to help people, or how to give people an opportunity to get better. Our team of Medical Innovation Fellows has been exposed to a lot of situations and we now have a long list of unmet needs that warrant solutions. If any of those needs can be solved, patients’ lives and quality of care will be much improved.”