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Ontario aims to become a brain-science innovation hub

By Jerry Zeidenberg

TORONTO – Claiming the highest concentration of brain researchers in any jurisdiction worldwide, Ontario is now aiming to turn its neurological knowledge into products that can be commercialized. If successful, the project could produce an amazing array of therapies for patients and an economic bonanza for the province.

“We’re trying to create a Silicon Valley of neurotechnology,” commented Michelle Wilson, communications lead for the Ontario Brain Institute, a government-funded organization that is spearheading the commercialization drive.

The OBI connects 35 research institutions across the province, stimulating research and innovation, and directing projects that aim to produce breakthroughs in treating a host of brain-related disorders, including autism, Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy. “There are 800 to 900 neuroscientists in Ontario,” commented Jordan Antflick, PhD, senior outreach lead at OBI. “They’re sometimes separated by long distances, but with Brain-CODE, geography no longer matters.”

Brain-CODE is a neurology informatics platform created by OBI. It is a high-speed network that connects the researchers and houses their work so that all can access it quickly. What’s more, the system employs Big Data analytics to make further sense of the data, resulting in additional insights.

A $15 million investment by the Ontario government got the OBI off the ground in 2010, and in 2011, an additional five-year funding of $100 million was kicked in to support research and development work in five clinical areas – neurodevelopmental disorders, cerebral palsy, depression, neurodegenerative disorders, and epilepsy.

For its part, the federal government’s FedDev Ontario has contributed $11 million to the OBI’s commercialization effort. In addition, FedDev’s investment has been more than matched by private industry partners.

Already, the OBI is nurturing 15 brain technology entrepreneurs from across the province. (A new round of the entrepreneurial program was just launched, and will result in at least 10 more innovators being groomed.) Some of the innovations are, pardon the expression, mind-boggling, and include:

• a portable PET scanner that can fit into the trunk of a car.

• a new device for treating sleep apnea.

• an app for children with autism.

The entrepreneurs were each given $50,000 in start-up money by the Ontario Brain Institute, and the 15 companies have now raised an additional $4 million on their own – they’ve pitched their prototypes to investors who were convinced they have useful and commercially viable products.

The entrepreneurial companies include MDDT Inc., short for Movement Disorders Diagnostic Technologies, which emerged from research conducted by Dr. Mandar Jog and his Movement Disorders Centre at the London Health Sciences Centre. Dr. Jog has discovered a way of dramatically reducing tremors in patients with Parkinsons and other diseases accompanied by tremors.

“There are about 10 million Parkinson’s patients worldwide, and another 40 million with essential tremors,” said Jack Lee, MDDT’s chief operating officer, and a former researcher at Dr. Jog’s Movement Disorders Centre who now spearheads the commercialization of its work. Indeed, tremors are among the most common movement disorders seen by physicians, and doctors often treat the symptom by injecting a botox-like drug called Xeomin directly into the afflicted muscles.

Xeomin relaxes the muscles, but the therapy has proven effective in only 20 percent to 30 percent of patients. That’s largely because it’s difficult to know which muscles to inject and how much of the medication to use. However, by using a band with embedded motion sensors and computer algorithms produced by Dr.Jog’s team, physicians can dramatically improve the results. “We’re seeing a 70 percent reduction in tremors in 70 percent of patients,” commented Lee.

A pilot project with 50 patients has been running since 2011, and a multi-site trial in Canada and the United States is slated to begin this year. “We have to ensure we can replicate the results,” commented Lee, who has an MSc in physiology and pharmacy.

MDDT’s solution for tremors, called TremorTek, has also won funding from the MaRS technology centre and from the Ontario Centres of Excellence. (MDDT exhibited at this year’s OCE Discovery conference, held in Toronto in May.) What’s more, the maker of Xeomin, German-based Merz Inc., has also invested in the technology.

TremorTek is currently under review by Health Canada, and Lee hopes to start marketing in Canada in 2016, followed by the United States and Europe. Currently, it is being used as an experimental treatment.

For those who have tried TremorTek and benefited, the technology has been a godsend. One of the patients is now able to play golf again, while another, a wood carver, is able to use power tools as she did before her illness struck. Before and after videos of patients can be seen on the MDDT website at www.mddtinc.com.

Another of OBI’s entrepreneurs, Natasha D’Souza, also showcased her innovation at the recent Discovery conference in Toronto. D’Souza, an electrical engineer by training, has produced Zeely Adventures, a game-like software system that teaches kids with special needs how to recognize emotions in others – something that most children pick up naturally, but which kids with autism, Down’s, ADHD, fetal alcohol syndrome and other disorders must be taught. (See http://zeelyadventures.com/)

And because they feel like they don’t fit in, these kids are in danger of getting into trouble – sometimes resorting to anti-social behaviour and substance abuse.

“One out of 88 children is on the spectrum, and the numbers are on the rise,” commented D’Souza. She learned about the difficulties that some children have after becoming a mom and discovering that her own child was having trouble relating to the emotions of others.

D’Souza organized a team of graphics designers, photographers, coders, speech pathologists and voice actors to help create the multimedia game, which challenges kids to recognize and respond appropriately to the facial expressions and emotions of others.

Zeely Adventures launched in January on iTunes (it runs on iPads), and already has users in Canada, the United States, the UK and Australia. The $20 program has become popular with therapists and special education teachers, who use Zeely Adventures to train children. (One therapist in the United States has been using it tom help emotionally delayed adults.)

The program is beautifully designed and engages its users – primarily children, who participate by answering questions and visiting interesting places, like parks and museums. They’re encouraged to activate a green star to light up by getting the right answers – meaning they’ve learned to interpret facial expressions and cues.

Zeely Adventures is a true innovation for kids with emotional disorders like autism, Aspberger’s syndrome, and ADHD. “Many of these kids can’t interpret emotions on their own,” said D’Souza. “But if they’re taught, and the message is reinforced at home, the success rate is high.”

For more information about OBI and its work with entrepreneurs, see: http://www.braininstitute.ca/obi-entrepreneurs-program.

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