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Members of Young Presidents’ Organization get exclusive tour of Sunnybrook Research Institute

By Matthew Pariselli  •  November 27, 2019

David AndrewsDr. Ben DavidsonDr. Arjun SahgalDr. Greg CzarnotaDr. Michael JuliusBorys Chabursky

On the evening of Nov. 13, 2019, Toronto members and guests of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) were given a dose of cutting-edge science to couple with the uncharacteristic snowfall of the night. The network, made up of CEOs striving to make an impact on lives and businesses, has chapters in more than 130 countries around the world. Braving the cold and battling traffic, the 28 visitors traveled to Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) to hear about, and see, how scientists are inventing the future of health care.

As the guests swept snowflakes off their shoulders, they enjoyed refreshments. Yvonne Chan, board member, YPO Toronto chapter, and Borys Chabursky, past YPO chapter chair, welcomed the chief executives. Next, Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at SRI and Sunnybrook, said a few words about the institute before introducing the three presenters of the night: Drs. David Andrews, Ben Davidson and Arjun Sahgal.

Andrews, senior scientist and director of Biological Sciences at SRI, spoke about his research, which aims to make cancer treatment more effective by tailoring it to the individual. He explained programmed cell death, and showed how some cancer cells block the process, ensuring they’re able to survive and wreak havoc. Andrews argued that disease is personal and that therapy should be, too. His work on precision medicine took centre stage as he talked about how he has developed a system that can predict in advance of giving anyone therapy which combinations of drugs will work for which patients.

Davidson is a neurosurgery resident at Sunnybrook completing his PhD training with Dr. Nir Lipsman, scientist at SRI and director of the Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation at Sunnybrook, and Dr. Clement Hamani, senior scientist at SRI and head of preclinical research at the Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation. He stood in for Lipsman, who was scheduled to attend but got called to the operating room. Davidson showcased focused ultrasound, a breakthrough technology that uses sound waves to target tissue deep in the body. Sunnybrook is a Centre of Excellence in focused ultrasound, and Sunnybrook researchers were the first in the world to test the technology clinically in people with Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and brain cancer.

Sahgal, scientist at SRI and director of the Cancer Ablation Therapy (CAT) Program at Sunnybrook, shared details on three technologies driving change in cancer treatment: the Gamma Knife Icon, MR-linac and MR-brachytherapy. He discussed how these machines, all housed at Sunnybrook, and in some cases unique in Canada, have improved treatment, allowing clinicians to be more efficient, effective and precise when delivering radiotherapy.

Once the three presentations ended, the guests splintered into three smaller groups and were ushered through spaces that coincided with the talks. Andrews took the YPO members on the path of a patient’s cancer sample in the high-content cellular analysis lab, which he directs. Highlighting specific pieces of equipment, he shared how he uses automation and artificial intelligence to take sample cells, separate them into individual cells and then grow them in an incubator. He pointed out the robot that puts drugs in plates for testing, a microscope that takes photos, the computer that analyzes the images and the terminal that spits out the data, which then informs which drug combination to prescribe a patient.

Davidson pulled back the veil on the focused ultrasound brain device, explaining its features. One such piece he mentioned was the rubbery layer that separates the patient’s head from the top of the helmet. Water is held between the rubber and the helmet, resting above the patient’s skull to keep the head cool while sound waves travel through to the target. He explained the difference between high- and low-frequency focused ultrasound—the former used to destroy unwanted tissue to treat essential tremor, for instance, and the latter used to grant drugs access to the brain for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, among other conditions.

The final station showcased the CAT Program. Here, Dr. Greg Czarnota, senior scientist and director of the Odette Cancer Research Program at SRI, profiled the MR-linac, which pairs radiation with high-resolution MRI for real-time therapy response monitoring. The machine, the only such in Canada, has helped make Sunnybrook a world leader in radiotherapy. To show the machine’s magnetic power, he let guests hold—or try to hold—a tennis ball full of magnets in a sock near the opening, where a patient’s head would enter. When the guests hung the sock at close range of the opening, it was swiftly and intensely suctioned into the hole, drawing gasps from the impressed visitors. Czarnota also let them try to rotate a magnetic brick in this opening. A clinical trial of the system is ongoing.

Sahgal then led guests to the Gamma Knife Icon. Sunnybrook was the first site in Canada with the system. He described, in brief terms, the process a person goes through when treated with the device. Instead of fixing a frame to a patient’s head with screws to minimize movement—a standard practice that results in lengthy, uncomfortable procedures—a patient now wears a mask while the machine delivers hundreds of radiation beams to a single focal point. The unparalleled precision this enables means radiation is targeted to the tumour, rather than the entire brain, as was the case before the Gamma Knife Icon was introduced. Sahgal also spoke of a patient who lived three years beyond his initial prognosis thanks to the Gamma Knife Icon.

Following the stop-offs, Andrea Bielecki, CEO of INVIVO Communications, gave a glowing review of the tour. “I truthfully loved everything. I loved seeing the labs, the amazing robotics, the applications for tumour identification and testing, and the treatments and new technologies in terms of the MRIs and the Gamma Knife. It’s revolutionary, and it’s amazing that it’s made in Canada,” she said.

“One other thing I was unaware of was the level of research that’s conducted here, and all of the trials and studies that are going on along with the new technologies. I knew this was one of the premier treatment centres in the world, but I did not understand the level of innovation and research,” Bielecki added.

For Aline Maybank, an undergraduate student in the Integrated Science Program at Dalhousie University, the visit fanned the flames of her doctoral aspirations. She joined her father, Mark Maybank, chairman of Fleet Canada Inc., on the tour. “I thought it was super interesting and very forward. I’d never seen anything [like it] before, which was really what I wanted to come out and experience. I wanted to see what’s new and cutting-edge,” she said. “I’m a student right now, and going to med school is my goal, so this empowered me, showing me that science is moving forward.”

Maybank said the takeaway for her was that there’s unity in science. She said she’s often told to choose between biology, chemistry or physics. “This gave me encouragement that I don’t have to follow one sole [type of] science,” she reflected. “You can mix your understandings, fuse your passions.”

To wrap up, the YPO guests reconvened, mingling over beverages and finger food, and asking the presenters questions. Chan, Chabursky and Julius ended the evening with closing remarks before the visitors bundled up to face the wintry weather.

In addition to the November 13 event, which had a waitlist of more than 40 people, a second group of YPO members and guests toured SRI on November 26. There was a waitlist for this event, too, as there is for a third event on December 5.

The Andrews, Hamani and Lipsman labs are part of the Centre for Research in Image-Guided Therapeutics, funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

In a nutshell

  • On Nov. 13, 2019, 28 members and guests of the Young Presidents’ Organization were given an exclusive tour of Sunnybrook Research Institute.
  • They listened to presentations by Drs. David Andrews, Ben Davidson and Arjun Sahgal, learning how Sunnybrook researchers are inventing the future of health care and working to save lives.
  • They visited the high-content cellular analysis lab, the focused ultrasound suite and part of the Cancer Ablation Therapy Program space.