Neuroscientist Ryan D’Arcy likes to dream big. Sitting in the boardroom of the Neurotech Lab on the southwest corner of the Surrey Memorial Hospital site, he lays out a grand ambition that has the potential to shatter stereotypes about the Lower Mainland’s second-largest city.
The 41-year-old Simon Fraser University professor points out that the San Francisco Bay Area has a globally famous collection of high-tech firms based in Silicon Valley. Boston is home to a large cluster of biotech companies. There’s also a zone called LifeScience Alley, formerly called Medical Alley, in Minnesota.
D’Arcy hopes to create something similar in Surrey City Centre. So for the past year-and-a-half, he’s cochaired a partnership between academic institutions, Fraser Health, and the City of Surrey that’s trying to attract large and small health-related tech companies along what is dubbed Innovation Boulevard. It’s located in the 2.5-square-kilometre area between, and including, SFU’s Surrey Centre campus and Surrey Memorial Hospital.
“We recognize that there’s limited public-sector funding to address the health-care challenge to deliver high-quality care to as many people as we can,” D’Arcy tells the Georgia Straight. “So you have to go into partnerships with the universities. That’s why SFU, UBC, BCIT, and Kwantlen [Polytechnic University] are here to provide innovative solutions.”
Surrey Memorial is in eye of storm
He acknowledges that some people have wondered why Surrey was chosen over other municipalities as a destination for high-tech entrepreneurs. But he says that with the city attracting 1,000 new residents per month and having only one acute-care hospital with an emergency room, this is where the model is most needed. In fact, Surrey Memorial Hospital has the busiest emergency room in the province.
“We all hear about the health-care crisis,” D’Arcy states. “These guys face it on a daily basis. They’re one of the first to hit it hard.”
In developing new health technologies, D’Arcy maintains that the best predictor of success is giving innovators access to busy hospital environments. He says that this enables products to become more clinically useful and competitive. “Without that, without good people and clinical integration, a good idea cannot go through commercialization and get out in the world,” he states.
So what, exactly, is Innovation Boulevard? It was created after D’Arcy was recruited in 2012 from the National Research Council’s Institute for Biodiagnostics (Atlantic) in Halifax, where he was the head and senior research officer. In that position, he raised more than $50 million and led a group of scientists and clinicians focused on creating health products to help neurological patients.
Innovation Boulevard attracts investment
D’Arcy, who was born in Williams Lake, became the B.C. leadership chair in multimodal technology for health-care innovation with the help of $5.25 million in funding from the province, SFU, and Surrey Memorial Hospital Foundation. Surrey mayor Dianne Watts is the cochair of Innovation Boulevard, which counts 45 incoming companies, according to D’Arcy.
“Those 45 companies are a diversified portfolio,” he says. “They include multinational companies like Philips Healthcare.”
There are also small- and medium-size businesses and some startups, D’Arcy adds, as well as companies moving to Surrey from India. Innovation Boulevard also lists the educational Israel Center for Medical Simulation and the nonprofit Israel Brain Technologies as participants. “The most important incenting level of government to bring jobs to Canada and keep companies in Canada is the city level,” D’Arcy says.
Innovation Boulevard is focusing on three areas. D’Arcy’s specialty is developing medical technologies, primarily devices to assist neurological patients. There’s also a great deal of emphasis on technologies to promote independent living and on digital-health technologies.
D’Arcy likens creating a high-tech cluster in Surrey to the development of Whistler’s world-famous ski resort. Many years ago, it seemed crazy to build a road to a remote mountainous area. He hopes that people look upon Surrey City Centre as having similar potential.
Medical devices are crucial to success
One of his first tasks has been to ensure that there is sufficient equipment to support companies that are based in the Innovation Boulevard precinct. It began with electroencephalography devices, used to record the brain’s electrical activity, and he then added a larger piece used in magnetoencephalography, a neuroimaging technique that records magnetic fields in the brain. D’Arcy’s next goal is to obtain high-field functional-magnetic-resonance-imaging equipment.
He says the devices will be in the hospital and in other key clinical environments and will track the functioning of the brain rather than just capturing images of its structure. To reinforce his point, D’Arcy compares the brain to a high-performance race car. “If you fell from pole position to position 2 or position 3, that’s a subtle slip in your highest function,” he says.
He makes the case that technology offers great potential to enhance the efficiency of Surrey Memorial Hospital by enabling patients to be discharged earlier if they’re able to be monitored in their home environments or in regional clinics. Currently, there is no way of monitoring the brain’s vital signs in the same way that doctors can monitor blood pressure and other risk factors for disease. So sometimes it’s difficult to determine if a hospital patient with a brain injury should be discharged. However, if there was a way to examine the patient’s brain similar to the way blood pressure can be monitored at home or in a clinic, it could open up new pathways to treatment in the community.
“What we need to do is move to looking at diagnostics and ways to measure treatment effects that are actually looking at your brain’s performance, which basically means how your brain is working,” he says. “So we’re trying to devise devices and ways to create vital signs for brain function that we can monitor.”
So what are the vital signs? D’Arcy says the key is in assessing how the brain is processing information. That can be accomplished by playing tones or speech and then looking for markers in the brain to indicate how this input is being received. This is important for people with concussions, for instance. It can already be accomplished in hospital settings, but D’Arcy says it may take time before it can be done at home. In the meantime, he expects that Innovation Boulevard will yield equally quick results with independent-living technologies.
He points out that at the Innovation Centre for Healthy Aging there, run by the privately owned Retirement Concept, researchers are intrigued by the prospect of developing products that will make care homes safer. That includes introducing airbags in wheelchairs or creating flooring that reduces the chance of hip fractures. This, in turn, will alleviate pressure on acute-care hospitals.
He adds that video monitoring can enhance the oversight of residents with dementia. “Very rapidly, technology is going to make our care homes better places,” D’Arcy predicts.
D'Arcy learned from Capt. Trevor Greene
One of the highlights of D’Arcy’s career was helping facilitate Capt. Trevor Greene’s stunning recovery from a devastating brain injury. And the lessons D’Arcy learned during this experience have influenced what he’s doing in Surrey.
Greene, a former Vancouver journalist, was a volunteer from the Seaforth Highlanders when he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2006. During a visit to an Afghan village, he removed his helmet as a sign of respect, only to be struck in the head by an axe-wielding teenager. It led newscasts across Canada.
Greene required major surgery in Germany and initially wasn’t expected to survive, according to D’Arcy, and if he didn’t die, he was expected to remain in a vegetative state. The SFU neuroscientist says that Greene’s partner (and later his wife), Debbie, was told to put him in a care home and get on with her life. But the couple refused to give up.
D’Arcy says that people in the brain-injury community compare Greene to wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen because of the magnitude of his accomplishments. And D’Arcy cites many important factors underlying his success.
The Afghanistan veteran was helped by a highly supportive advocate, Debbie. As a former high-performance athlete, Greene was familiar with using visualization. D’Arcy says this can’t be underestimated in assessing why he made such remarkable progress. In addition, Greene decided to set a goal that seemed out of reach to many.
“He decided that he wanted to walk again so he could walk down the aisle for his wedding to get married to Debbie,” D’Arcy says.
The Greenes were living in Nanaimo, and every three months they would travel to Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria for magnetic-resonance imaging. D’Arcy would fly from Halifax to join them so he could monitor the functioning of Greene’s brain and make this information available to people who were assisting Greene with his recovery.
At first, Greene required a lift to enter the machine, D’Arcy recalls. By the third visit, the former journalist was able to get onto the device with the help of his spouse.
“About the sixth or seventh time, Trevor was standing by himself,” D’Arcy recalls. “It was amazing.”
Later, D’Arcy watched a video of Greene walking in rehabilitation with the help of parallel bars. By the time D’Arcy concluded his visits to Victoria, Greene was doing laps around his house with a walker. He also wrote two books, his son, Noah, was born, and he married Debbie.
D’Arcy says scientists have learned in recent years that the brain has recuperative powers after an injury or a stroke, a process known as plasticity. That’s because other parts of the brain can sometimes pick up the functioning of areas where brain cells have been injured. And Greene has demonstrated what can be accomplished by a dedicated person with the help of devices that show how the brain processes stimuli.
“If we can watch the brain rewiring, we can take that powerful visual data and provide that to the people who are working in rehabilitation,” D’Arcy says.
If these devices can be installed within people’s homes or in regional clinical centres, D’Arcy notes, they have the potential to reduce the number of people who will have to remain in hospitals, thereby saving the health-care system a huge amount of money. “It’s not good enough that I can do this in the lab,” the neuroscientist insists. “That doesn’t work for real-world standards. What we do here is try to engineer the way that we can make sure that what we can do in the lab can go out and be used in the real world.”
As part of the 2014 SFU Public Square Community Summit, there will be a roundtable on innovations in patient care and a networking breakfast beginning at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday (October 21) at Surrey Memorial Hospital.