UofTMed Student Showcase: A Digital Display of Innovative Research

Apr 1, 2020
Author: 
Rohini Chopra

Each year, the Faculty of Medicine hosts its much-anticipated UofTMed Student Showcase. Students and trainees from across specialties and sectors display their innovative research and technologies through interactive exhibits to showcase the impact of philanthropy and thank donors for their generosity.

This year’s event — which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic — was set to bring 12 projects to life from learners in the MD Program, Medical Sciences, Molecular Genetics, Nutritional Sciences, Occupational Sciences, Rehabilitation Sciences and Surgery. Some of these projects focus on topics like virtual patient care and social isolation — themes that are especially relevant during the current pandemic.

Although they could not present their work in person, the students and trainees are pleased to digitally present the 2020 UofTMed Student Showcase, and the Faculty of Medicine is proud to celebrate them.
Chris, Nayaab and Vjura

Christopher S. Ahuja, Surgery
with Nayaab Punjani & Vjura Senthilnathan, UTSC

Supervisor: Dr. Michael Fehlings, Department of Surgery
Krembil Research Institute at the University Health Network

Christopher and his team are working to transplant self-assembling peptides into the spinal cord to support stem cells as they rebuild lost connections formed by spinal cord injuries.

Spinal cord injury is a debilitating condition that leads to a loss of cells and surrounding support structures in the spinal cord — reducing quality of life for patients. At the chronic stage, scar tissue starts to form, preventing neurons from reforming and impairing recovery. Current treatments involve transplanting stem cells at the site of the injury to replace cell loss. However, without the surrounding support system, these cells have nothing to keep them in place while they grow and reform lost connections.

At Dr. Michael Fehlings’ lab, our team is transplanting a self-assembling peptide (QL6) into the spinal cord along with neural stem cells to build the missing support system. The peptide’s molecules combine on their own to bridge the gap and reassemble the surrounding cells in the spinal cord. By introducing the peptide to the stem cell transplant, we hope to help restore the connection needed to repair the injury site and help patients recover at the chronic stage of spinal cord injury.
Dong An

Dong An, MD Program

Supervisors: Dr. Ahtsham Niazi & Dr. Gordon Tait, Department of Anesthesia and Pain Management
University Health Network

Dong is evaluating a new online tool for medical students training in anesthesia, so they can easily access resources, including diagrams and videos.

Traditionally, learners training in anesthesia have had to study and memorize medical knowledge using printed textbooks. More recently, medical schools have made the switch to e-books, making information more easily accessible. However, e-books can still be challenging to navigate while you’re on the go in a clinical setting, where there is a need to access information in real-time. Last year, U of T's Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine created the Anesthesia Quick Reference Guide, an online tool accessible on smartphones and computers that provides users with easy access to information including text, videos and diagrams.

My role in this project is to evaluate and improve the tool for future students. Current users have shared positive feedback saying they liked how easy it is to look things up using their phones while on their rotations and that they found it useful when preparing for exams. 

Karishma, Priya and Shahrose

Shahrose Aratia, Karishma Patel & Priyanka Thakkar, Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy

Supervisors: Dr. Rosalie Wang, Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Thearpy and Prof. Shehroz Khan, Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering
Toronto Rehabilitation Institute at University Health Network

Shahrose, Karishma and Priyanka are examining seniors’ preferences in using smart technology to guide the development of tools to assess and prevent social isolation.

Social interactions and access to social supports are among the most important factors in maintaining physical and mental health. A lack of social interactions and support can lead to depression, dementia and a decrease in quality of life. As people age, they can experience a decrease in the quality and quantity of their social lives — leading to social isolation. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, learning to cope with social isolation has become even more prevalent.

Our research aims to identify and ultimately decrease social isolation in the aging population. We are collecting data on social interactions by using a survey to determine the acceptance of using self-reporting tools like motion sensors, smartphones and smartwatches on participants older than 55.

We are trying to understand the frequency of social interactions, the individual’s perception and experience with social interactions or isolation, as well as their acceptance of new technologies as aids. We hope our findings can help inform occupational therapists and other health care professionals as they create social isolation assessment tools and develop programs to address a client’s or patient’s daily social needs. Given the current pandemic, our findings could also have a wider impact to help people globally as we practice physical distancing. If you'd like to contribute to our research, you can participate by filling out this confidential survey

Allison and IsabelAllison Daniel & Isabel Potani, Nutritional Sciences

Supervisor: Dr. Robert Bandsma, The Joannah & Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition
SickKids

Allison and Isabel are helping to implement interactive counselling for mothers in Malawi to treat severe acute malnutrition in children through the Kusamala Program.

Many Malawian children under age five are at high risk of malnutrition, leading to struggles in growing and in developing language and motor skills. We developed the Kusamala Program to provide social support and health care to children in Malawi with severe acute malnutrition requiring hospital treatment.

Children’s primary caregivers are enrolled in the program, which includes interactive counselling sessions led by hospital nurses at nutritional rehabilitation units. The sessions focus on three different elements: nutrition, hygiene and psychosocial stimulation. After each session, the nurses also help facilitate playtime with children and their caregivers through language games, songs and playing with toys that help with motor skills. Each family is also provided with printed infographics and toys to take home so they can practice what they learned in the sessions on their own.

Through the program, we have seen a shift in the behaviour of caregivers. In post-program interviews, caregivers said they feel better equipped to help mitigate the complications and recurrences of severe acute malnutrition by identifying malnutrition early, sourcing and preparing nutritious meals, implementing good hygiene practices and encouraging their children’s psychosocial skills.

Natalie and Yulong

Natalie J. Galant & Yulong Sun, Medical Biophysics and U of T’s Health Innovation Hub (H2i)

Supervisor: Dr. Avi Chakrabartty, Department of Medical Biophysics
Princess Margaret Cancer Centre

Natalie and Yulong are developing an antibody-drug to target pathological forms of proteins that cause heart failure.

Light-chain (AL) cardiac amyloidosis is a devastating and fatal cause of heart failure with no current cure. The disease occurs when healthy forms of proteins in the blood are corrupted and start accumulating as deposits, clogging up multiple organs including the heart. The only treatments available to patients are invasive bone marrow transplants, which the majority of patients are not eligible for, or chemotherapies which only slow the disease’s growth. Both treatments have debilitating side effects and are unable to cure heart failure.

Together we created the U of T startup Paradox Immunotherapeutics to design immunotherapies for rare diseases that cause organ failure. We are currently developing an antibody-drug (LX-96) that specifically targets the pathological forms of proteins causing AL heart failure while leaving the healthy proteins untouched. The antibody-drug attaches to the bad protein — tagging it as a troublemaker — and sends a signal to the body’s own immune system to clear it from the heart. Our goal with this treatment is to reverse heart failure with minimal risk and side-effects and to help patients regain their long-term quality of life.
Addiction Medicine Week

Robin Glicksman, Hilary Stone & Melissa Tigert, MD Program

Supervisor: Dr. Ruby Alvi, Department of Family and Community Medicine
Trillium Health Partners

Robin, Hilary and Melissa are leading a student-run program that helps train MD students on how to support patients with substance use disorders.

Twenty-two per cent of Canadians are affected by substance use disorders. Many learners feel inadequately prepared to help people with substance use issues. Our team developed a program to address this with U of T medical students during the school’s Addiction Medicine Week, which took place in June 2019.

Our program gives first- and second-year MD students the opportunity to take part in lectures, workshops and clinical experiences involving substance use disorders. Clinical placements were matched so students would be paired individually with a specialist who works with patients with histories of substance abuse. Students learn communication skills and hands-on care strategies so they can become better collaborators and health care providers for patients with these disorders. Through a survey, we found that students were encouraged by how the program could prepare them for their own practice and opened their eyes to a physician’s role in patient advocacy.
Sophia Massin

Sophia Massin, Institute of Medical Science

Supervisor: Dr. Vijay Chauhan, Department of Physiology
Toronto General Hospital Research Institute

Sophia is isolating the right atrium of the heart with intra-cardiac voltage mapping to identify atrial scarring and to better predict the recurrence of atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to strokes, heart failure and other complications. Millions of people worldwide are living with and seek treatment for AFib. Catheter ablation is a common treatment that involves inserting thin wires with electrodes into a vein, typically through the leg’s femoral vein, and easing it into the heart to destroy the tissue that causes AFib. This procedure does not always prevent the recurrence of arrhythmia, partially since it only focuses on the left atrium of the heart, leaving the right atrium untreated.

With a team, I am working with patients undergoing AFib treatment to identify scarring in the atrium and to develop strategies for the treatment of both atria. We use tools like voltage mapping to locate the scars , high-frequency sound waves to identify enlargement and ECGs to illustrate the atria’s electrical activity. By creating these detailed heart maps, we will be able to identify scarring and hope to help researchers and clinicians better predict the recurrence of AFib so they can develop more thoughtful health care solutions for patients.

Rebecca Mok

Rebecca Mok, Molecular Genetics

Supervisor: Dr. James Ellis, Department of Molecular Genetics
SickKids

Rebecca is harnessing human stem cell technology to determine the root cause of Rett syndrome.

Studying the development of the brain helps us better understand neurodevelopmental disorders like Rett syndrome. This disease is a rare and severe condition that affects 1 in 10,000 female children due to mutations in a specific gene. It is characterized by delayed brain growth and progressive loss of motor skills and communication abilities.

Acquiring human brain cells to use in our lab studies is usually challenging. But scientific advances have discovered how to turn blood samples into stem cells, which have the capacity to become any type of cell in the body.

In the lab where I work, we use stem cells from people with neurodevelopmental disorders to make personalized neurons that genetically match the donor. We can create “brains-in-a-dish” to investigate what changes are happening in their underlying biological processes. Through this, we were able to see how neurons grow slowly and fire fewer signals than usual in cases of Rett syndrome Our goal is to use findings like this to help with drug discovery and interventions that may improve signalling and help those affected by Rett syndrome.

Farah Qaiser

Farah Qaiser, Molecular Genetics

Supervisor: Dr. Ryan K.C. Yuen, Department of Molecular Genetics
SickKids

Farah is using DNA sequencing to search for modifiers and "typos" in patients that can lead to epilepsy and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Picture your DNA — your entire genetic code — as a book. There are over three billion letters in your book. That’s more letters than in the entire Harry Potter book series. Using DNA sequencing, I can read all the chapters in your book and search for different types of mistakes. And with over three billion letters, typos are going to happen. But what happens if there’s a typo or two in your genetic code?

I’m investigating how typos in the same set of genes can lead to both epilepsy and Autism Spectrum Disorder in the same person. Using DNA sequencing, I am searching for both modifiers and typos in different groups of patients. Most researchers are only looking at the specific genes or regions of a genome to understand the basis of neurological disorders. I’m proposing we look at the entire book — the entire genome — to better understand the connection between epilepsy and Autism Spectrum Disorder. So far, I’ve found that different typos in a gene coding for a potassium channel can lead to both epilepsy and Autism Spectrum Disorder in three different patients. I hope eventually, we can better understand the full genome so we can get to read our entire books.

Ryan RamosRyan Ramos, MD Program

Supervisor: Dr. Azad Mashari, Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine
University Health Network

Ryan Ramos is teaching trainees about adult congenital heart disease through 3D heart models.

Congenital heart disease is a problem with the structure of the heart that occurs when its walls, valves, vessels or chambers aren’t properly developed at birth. There are several types of defects and the majority are treatable thanks to advances in medicine and surgery. Because of this, the number of adults living with congenital heart disease is increasing and so is the need for specialized training.

My team and I noticed diagrams of the heart currently available to learners are not detailed enough to illustrate specific defects. To solve this, we used 3D printing to create twenty-four types of congenital heart disease models showing patient-specific diagnoses. With a patient’s consent, we use CT imaging to create 3D printed models that are colour coded to represent the different heart chambers and connections. The models are available in an online repository so trainees can view and download the images. Our latest advancement integrates the models into virtual reality simulators allowing learners to navigate their way around a heart in a hands-on training experience.

Nuley Seo

Nuley Seo, MD Program

Supervisor: Dr. Monica Farcas, Department of Surgery, Divison of Urology
St. Michael’s Hospital (Unity Health Toronto)

Nuley has created a benchtop ureteroscopy simulator using 3D printing to perform kidney surgery.

My project focuses on developing an accessible surgical simulator for a procedure called flexible ureteroscopy, commonly used for the treatment of kidney stone disease. Although many ureteroscopy simulators exist, none of them are able to accurately replicate a kidney’s anatomy.

I created a simulation platform with an anatomically correct kidney model that allows trainees to practice this surgery in a safe and convenient environment. This ureteroscopy simulator can be used on any flat surface and includes 3D printed kidneys, with detailed reconstructions of the anatomy. The simulator will allow trainees to practice surgery more easily and efficiently so they can gain the skills they need to perform in the operating room.

John Tran

John Tran, Rehabilitation Sciences Institute

Supervisor: Dr. Anne Agur, Rehabilitation Sciences Institute and Institute of Medical Sciences and Dr. Philip Peng, Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine

John is using augmented reality to help pain medicine physicians visualize 3D models of the knee and shoulder nerve supplies using their smartphones.

People with osteoarthritis feel pain when the sensory nerves connected to their joints send signals to the brain. To alleviate this, specialists use radiofrequency ablation, a process where a needle with an electrode is placed near a sensory nerve to stop the transmission of pain signals. Positioning the electrode in the right spot is essential to this treatment and in many cases identifying the ideal location can be difficult.

In our laboratory, we have constructed anatomically accurate 3D models of the nerves that supply the knee and shoulder joints. But my team and I noticed a problem — to distribute information in journals and textbooks, making the information accessible for specialists worldwide, images need to be two-dimensional. So we created a two-dimensional image that can also be accessed in 3D using an app called Augmented Reality for Regional Anesthesia (AR4RA).

Through our augmented reality app, users hover their smartphones over two-dimensional images of knees and shoulders to see a 3D representation of the same image on their screen. The user can then move around the image to visualize it from different angles, enhancing their understanding of the nerves supplying the knee and shoulder joints.

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