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Dr. Stuart Foster wins the 2020 Biomedical Engineering Award from IEEE

By Alisa Kim  •  July 26, 2019

Dr. Stuart Foster hadn’t checked his email in a week when his assistant suggested discreetly that it might be a good idea to catch up. When he finally logged into his account in early July, he was in for a terrific surprise: he had received the 2020 Biomedical Engineering Award from the IEEE (pronounced “eye-triple-E”), the world’s largest technical professional society.

There are more than 420,000 members of the IEEE globally, including scientists, electrical engineers, software developers, information technology professionals and medical doctors. This diversity is why the organization, whose official name is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is referred to simply as IEEE.

He was recognized “for contributions to the field of high-resolution imaging.” Foster, who held the Canada Research Chair in Ultrasound Imaging from 2007 to 2017, pioneered micro-ultrasound. This is an imaging technique done at high frequencies to produce clear images of biological processes in the body. The technology enables minute structures within tissue and physiological details, like blood flowing into a mouse tumour, to be seen without using invasive probes.

In 1999, Foster, who is also a professor in the department of medical biophysics at the University of Toronto, formed a company, VisualSonics, to commercialize the technology. The company was acquired in 2010 by SonoSite and bought a year later by Fujifilm. VisualSonics scanners are now used for preclinical imaging in thousands of labs, hospitals and drug companies worldwide.

Researchers use the technology to evaluate disease models in mice by studying the effects, over time, of knocking out or adding genes, or to test new therapeutics. Micro-ultrasound has also received regulatory approval for use in humans. At Sunnybrook, a clinical version of the technology is being used in urology, by Dr. Laurence Klotz, who is also a cancer researcher at SRI; in dermatology, by Dr. Neil Shear; and in neurosurgery, by Dr. Victor Yang, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences at SRI.

When asked why he thinks he was chosen, Foster replies, “I think that, over the years, we’ve produced a steady stream of technology that’s found a home in biomedical and clinical research. It’s one thing to do one project that’s successful, but when one project leads to another, leads to another, leads to another—there gets to be a lot of momentum.”

Foster says the award is a highlight of his career and strong validation of the research program at SRI. It is one of many accolades he has received in the last few years. In 2018, he was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and of the Canadian Academy of Engineering. In 2017, he was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering as a foreign member.

He will be presented the award, which comes with a medal and a cash prize of $10,000 US, at one of the IEEE’s events in 2020. He notes that he gets to choose at which meeting he will receive the honour; he is leaning toward accepting it at a conference in Seville, Spain next spring.

In a nutshell

  • Dr. Stuart Foster has been awarded the 2020 Biomedical Engineering Award from the IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional society.
  • The award recognizes his pioneering work in micro-ultrasound, an imaging technique done at high frequencies to produce detailed images.
  • He is the first Canadian to be recognized with the honour.