The Connector

Groundbreaking collaboration between UHN and UofT aims to accelerate the transition of cutting-edge technology research into practical applications

In a world where an implantable electrode can reduce the number and intensity of a patient’s seizures, there’s no question that health care and engineering have become inextricably linked. Nowhere is that clearer than in the KITE Research Institute at University Health Network (UHN), which has been pushing the boundaries of medical innovation and healthcare technology since its inception.

No one is more committed to fostering collaborations between health care and engineering than Dr. Milos R. Popovic, Senior Scientist and Director of KITE. Since his appointment as Director in 2018, the research arm of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute has seen a surge in funding, published countless research papers and established a number of technology-based research labs, collaborations, and clinics. 

Dr. Popovic, who was also appointed Director of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto (UofT) in July 2023, is acutely aware of how beneficial it can be when diverse experts from UHN and academia ­– more specifically, in his case, UofT – come together. Moreover, he knows how challenging it can be to establish these types of alliances.

That conviction has led Dr. Popovic to his latest initiative, a groundbreaking collaboration between KITE at UHN and the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at UofT. The goal of this partnership is to create a barrier-free conduit that allows scientists at both institutions to transform cutting-edge technology research more quickly into practical medical applications. 

While some collaborations between the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at UofT and UHN have already happened in recent years, each has come with a high degree of friction, explains Dr. Popovic. Even as someone with one foot firmly planted in each institution, he has found that moving between them requires degrees of complexity that slows every step in the process.

“Hospitals and universities may seem like they’re compatible, but they’re not,” he adds. “Although scientists pursue research at both types of organizations, each has its own culture, with different modalities of thinking and different approaches to research and intellectual property.”

Creating new opportunities together

Although UofT and UHN are connected through the Faculty of Medicine, and the Institute of Biomedical Engineering has partnered previously with UHN on individual projects, this initiative is different. Dr. Bradly Wouters, Executive Vice President of Science and Research at UHN, explains how this collaboration is meant to capitalize on the natural synergy between KITE, which has a large focus on robotics and assistive technology, and the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

“UHN has a very strong relationship with the University of Toronto,” he notes. “But in this case, we’re looking to break down some of the barriers [between institutions] and create opportunities – for people to collaborate, to meet each other, to bring complementary expertise and to take the talent and ideas that are in the engineering faculty and involve them more in our hospital-based research.”

Traditionally, Dr. Popovic explains, universities and hospitals guard their intellectual property fiercely, because it can be a source of revenue. That means people from other institutions need to jump through hoops to gain access to protected information, even if it’s in the name of advancing medical treatments.

With Dr. Popovic now leading both institutes – KITE Research and Biomedical Engineering – he can serve as a connection between the two, with countless opportunities for scientists, students and clinicians to move freely between the spaces, and use resources as if they belong to their own institutions.

“My hope is to reduce that friction or minimize it so that things like intellectual property are properly divided and assigned to both UofT and UHN and that the people, funds and students can move between two institutions without any headaches.”

Bringing research to life

Most of the scientific community is familiar with what’s known as the valleys of death. While not life-threatening in the traditional sense, these lulls along the journey between initial scientific discovery and putting that discovery to use in humans represent an existential threat to research, which comes in three stages. 

The first is known as a preclinical finding, which happens during basic scientific research when no patients are involved – think, the “aha!” moment a scientist has in their lab. The second is when that discovery is developed, or translated into a practical application and tested, which can be anything from pharmaceutical drug trials to the development and testing of neuromodulating electrodes. The final stage is when the discovery finally reaches market, whether it’s a method now used in hospitals to regrow skin on burn victims or assistive technology available at rehab clinics for people with mobility issues.

In between each of those stages is a “valley of death” in which that discovery can languish due to lack of funding, communication, knowledge or interest to continue to the next phase, to name a few reasons. Dr. Popovic, with his extensive experience in bringing engineering-based medical solutions to market, has a deep understanding of each stage of the process and knows the value of accelerating the translation of ideas from the lab all the way to patient solutions.

“Normally, you do the research, publish the paper and then only later that work moves into the hospital, because somebody tries to implement it,” he explains. “It would be much better if the scientist who is working on an MRI tool immediately gives it to Dr. X, who will immediately implement it and give you feedback.”

The start of something big

Although the partnership is still in its infancy, everyone has high hopes for what the future will bring, as the kinks are ironed out. Dr. Popovic points out the reason it makes sense to try a collaboration like this at UHN and UofT – the two institutions are already deeply connected, making the barrier to entry far lower than at other research hubs in North America.

“I was at Texas A&M University recently, and they have a wonderful biomedical engineering department,” he notes. “But they don’t have a hospital or medical school attached to the university, so everything they do is done in isolation.”

For Christopher Yip, Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, this official partnership is just the tip of the iceberg. His dream is to create a mixing zone where faculty from all areas of engineering can come into KITE or other parts of UHN and gain access to challenges, opportunities to collaborate and more.

“The hospital is an entire ecosystem, of which engineering is actually a huge part,” Dean Yip notes. “I’m excited about what this [partnership] could be because it’s about something bigger than biomedical engineering. It’s looking at what KITE is doing and then looking at how we can introduce similar aspects through engineering in the partnership.”

Dr. Popovic cautions that there’s still some distance to cover before the floodgates can open, but the plan is to officially launch the partnership in the fall of 2024. Then, they can start dreaming big.

“If everything works as planned, in five years, this collaboration between KITE and UofT will have 200-plus scientists attached to it, a ridiculous number of graduate students and an influx of philanthropic cash,” he says, with a note of wistfulness. 

“Then you will start seeing some of the technology coming out, going into the marketplace and accelerating discovery and change in the healthcare system."

This Is KITE is a storytelling series that aims to excite and inspire audiences as well showcase the Institute’s people, discoveries and impressive range of research. The campaign will feature monthly stories and videos that chronicle key projects under KITE’s three pillars of research: Prevention, Restoration of Function, and Independent Living/Community Integration.