Medical biophysicist Aaron Fenster is getting a $2.65-million boost for his imaging research lab through the Ontario Research Fund – Research Excellence.
Jill Dunlop, Minister of Colleges and Universities, made the announcement Monday during a visit and tour at Western.
“This project is on the cutting edge of research innovation in this field,” Dunlop said.
In a demonstration during Dunlop’s visit, Fenster places his arm flat in a special cradle while a medical ultrasound machine snaps rapid-fire images of his wrist. Then, master’s student Carla du Toit stitches those two-dimensional images together – “like slices in a loaf of bread” – to compose a quick, comprehensive and inexpensive 3D picture of his wrist anatomy.
“Research like this will help to make advancements in medical and cancer diagnosis … improved diagnostic accuracy and increased patient comfort. And this is only the beginning of tapping into the potential we have at Western and across Ontario to advance innovation and advance 3D testing for personalized medicine,” Dunlop said.
The project is part of a new investment of $9.7 million into 16 Western research projects. Ontario is earmarking a total of $70.4 million for 176 projects intended to strengthen homegrown innovation and technologies undertaken by established and emerging researchers.
Fenster, a pioneer in imaging technology, is a professor at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and a scientist at Robarts Research Institute.
He said medical imaging projects in his lab are intended to have high impact, to solve unmet clinical needs and collaborate with industry to make it globally available.
The advantages of his latest work in 3D imaging are legion: it uses and converts conventional ultrasound machinery so clinics don’t need to invest in new machines; it’s non-invasive and non-surgical; and it provides a comprehensive and accurate diagnostic picture.
“We invented this technology where we can convert any ultrasound machine – every country, every hospital has these ultrasound machines – and using our software and hardware we can turn an inexpensive ultrasound machine into a 3D-imaging modality,” Fenster said.
During the tour, du Toit demonstrated how the technology could detect, far better than X-rays could, inflammation in a person with osteoarthritis in their wrist.
For someone with breast cancer, real-time 3D scanning could help detect the disease, a project award-winning doctoral student Claire Park is developing.
Colleague Tiana Trumpour demonstrated how the technology can provide image-guided treatment for abdominal cancers by showing oncologists exactly where to target radioactive treatment, while sparing the healthy surrounding tissue.
Trumpour, Park and du Toit all work in Fenster’s lab under his supervision.
“Radiation oncologists are keenly awaiting this because this is the first time in the world that we are able to do this,” Fenster said. “All three of these are actually world firsts.”
The walls of the imaging lab are dotted with framed patent certificates attesting to the researchers’ ground-breaking work.
It was Dunlop’s first visit to Western since her appointment as minister of universities and colleges in June, but she is familiar with campus, having graduated with a BSc in health and nutrition in 1997.
Commitment to research
The province’s investment in Fenster’s work is one of 15 projects newly funded through the Ontario Research Fund – Research Excellence, which helps cover the cost of research operations including supplies and researcher salaries.
Western president Alan Shepard said Fenster’s research is further evidence of how the university is determined to tackle the tough issues of our time.
“Our new strategic plan is very clear in its commitment to stimulate Western research, scholarship and creative activity – and using the incredible energy in our community to advance knowledge that not only serves individual disciplines but also the collective good and the public good,” Shepard said.
The work of Fenster and of other scientists and engineers provides “tangible example of the kind of research that has tremendous impact, not only here in Ontario but around the world,” said Lesley Rigg, Western vice-president (research).
“This is an exciting time for research, and we look forward to sharing our energy and expertise.”