Jordan: If you saw the title of today’s episode and you immediately thought, oh, Edmonton, and you don’t actually live there, then we should’ve had a prize ready for you. But maybe it’s not so surprising that this city has found a way to punch so far above its weight over the past few years. Most of the things needed for giant leaps and medical technology, we’re already here. Edmonton has more post secondary institutions than any other Canadian city. It has a burgeoning artificial intelligence sector, and a lot of numbers to give those machines to work with, and it has a push from a city that really needs a new way to do business. Our guest today has bugged me a few times about what’s been happening in his city, and he hasn’t been the only one, and everybody that did had a story about something they’re doing in Edmonton that sounds like it’s from the future. So we wanted to tell a few of those stories, and try to wrap our heads around why Edmonton? How much is this push costing the city? What does it plan to get back? And is this part of a bigger strategy in a province that could really use a booming non oil industry to emerge over the next few years.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Stephen Sandor is the editor of Avenue Edmonton. Steve, you’ve been one of the people that keeps telling me these crazy stories out of Edmonton.
Steve: Yeah, it’s really been amazing, the kind of I guess, it’s almost like a perfect storm right now for the city in terms of putting together a lot of different fields, a lot of different really fields of research together in terms of creating this health city initiative to basically really promote the idea of a cross pollinating health innovation real hub that’s going to emerge in Edmonton. So it’s sort of like a Silicon Valley, if you will, for health research and healthcare, where the researchers don’t work in isolation, they work knowing what the others are doing to sort of really ramp up and speed up the way that medical research is conducted and done, and to create a new business model. I mean, Edmonton, obviously any reader or sorry I’m saying reader, listener outside of Alberta obviously thinks of Edmonton and Calgary, a city that still has oil comes first, and natural resources. Were fully aware now in Alberta that we need to diversify our economy and diversify the way we live basically, and there has been this very large push in Edmonton. Ah, a lot of it based on fact, University of Alberta is one of the largest medical schools on the continent. It is one of the largest schools in the country, and it is a big research center, and using that is to underpin a really new way of looking at Edmonton as a research hub. It’s a city that’s not overly big so in the sense you don’t get lost, and it’s a city that has a history of being somewhat collaborative, where people do talk to each other and get ideas, and we’re seeing a real mix not just of doctors and surgeons, and on all the various medical researchers. But they’re bringing in people from other fields as well to inform that research anything from industrial design, to big data to artificial intelligence and Edmonton, U of A has been in artificial intelligence and has had researching artificial intelligence when we were still talking about if, like the Apple 2E is a thing. So that goes back 20-30 years.
Jordan: Well we’re talking today because every couple of weeks for the last few months, you’ve kind of dropped in…. dropped into our little chat with, like, did you see this coming out of Edmonton? Did you know about this technology? And a number of them have been fascinating, and you’ve gone to look at them. So tell me, you’ve written a few stories about this, but give me an example of the one that made the biggest impression on you when you actually went to see what they’re doing there.
Steve: I spent a couple, but I think the cover of this month’s issue, which we have is something called a Kobe Micro Spheres. It’s a company called I Am Biotechnology’s out of Edmonton. It’s not a secret that cancerous tumors can be dealt with if you cut off the blood supply, the red blood cells. They’re like a lot like other organs, they feed on the blood cells, they need those to survive, and if you cut off the blood supply, you can shrink a tumor or battle a tumor, or possibly even kill a tumor. The thing is, is that while that practice has been known, it’s never been efficient. It’s been a very invasive process, it’s dangerous because it also is dangerous for the organ and for the patient itself. It’s a lot like a lot of other cancer treatments that the cure can actually kill the patient or hurt the patient, you know, maybe more than the benefit, it outweighs the benefits. The holy grail in this would be is if you could develop a system that was basically dissolved after a few weeks, or maybe a couple of months, and that’s what they’ve done, and it’s been approved now by Health Canada and the FDA. So instead of being this hugely invasive procedure, it’s an injection and then you go home, and these tiny balls go into your blood vessels and create like, a little damn that block off the blood supply, the cancer, but then dissolve in time that it doesn’t really hurt you long term. So the idea is is this is a big, again , this is a big kind of holy grail moment. To to do this dis-solvable blood damming that can really treat cancer, and it’s a big business. I mean talk about, you know, the altruistic part of this, that this is wonderful. But you know, these vials are going to go, and I mean, when I talk to them, they were talking about $500 a vile, and these vials are tiny medical vials, right? So this is, you know, again talked with not just about the benefits of medical research but diversifying economy and getting these businesses not just to start here but to plant root here and stay here. That’s always been the big challenge for Canadian Pharma in any way. It’s not the development part, it’s the staying part once that they’ve developed and to not move to the United States.
Jordan: Well they could make more money there.
Steve: Absolutely, and as well, there’s a lot of other benefits in terms of how you pay staff and such like that, let’s face it. But I think we’re doing a better job of trying to retain, and this is the big part of that Health City initiative part of the discussion is, it’s one thing to have the researchers all here and working here, but to create a Silicon Valley kind of environment if you want to use as analogy, you need to keep them here. You need to keep people as they do in Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, and that comes down to a lot of things. It comes down to, you know, a lot of things that maybe don’t even have a lot to do with the research. It’s about the quality of life in your city, how your city’s perceived internationally, and that’s where I think actually, the biggest sort of work for Edmonton is going to have to come is create a profile for the city. I mean, obviously, even in Canada, there’s a lot of I mean;How many of the listeners here have actually been to Edmonton? It’s not like Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, where most of us have spent a lot of time there. It’s still a kind of a mystery to a lot of people, and I get that, I understand that, I think everyone understands that, and that’s where I think that sell job has to come in.
Jordan: Well you mentioned earlier that you know, two people who haven’t spent time there don’t know much about it like it is to me. I’ve been there since I was small, to me it’s an oil town, right? And how do you change that perception at a time when oil town is probably not the label you want to attract talented people to your city?
Steve: Well, I think that’s part of it is trying to spread the gospel of things like Health City. It’s trying to show people that there are other, uh, other economic drivers in this city, and I think as well that it’s a big research town. You know, it is a university town, it is a government town, and therefore has a lot of government supports and municipal supports. Right now is a good time, it might be, ironically, and while the government here the changeover, the provincial governments new just like Ontario. Right now, you know, we’re seeing that there’s already talks of some cutbacks in these areas like AI and big data in Ontario, and ia that going to add further benefit to Edmonton in terms of well the money isn’t available in Toronto or Ottawa, is it going to flow to Alberta now? We don’t know what the government is new here with Jason Kennyl what he’s going to do in that realm. I mean, right now he’s really working the carbon tax, and I think that’s his big, his big white whale right now that he’s chasing so, but we’re going to see long term how that affects things. But right now, I think that puts this step up. But yeah, definitely. It’s a lot of things. I mean the city, they talked about other things like, what is the quality of life? I mean, what is things like? Honestly, the theater scene? What’s the downtown dining scene like? And it’s really, really improved in Edmonton. In fact, now we have some of Canada’s best restaurants here, but it wasn’t like that even five years ago. It’s changing, you know, what kind of sports teams do you have to go out on on a weekend evening? And, you know, are you okay with watching the Oilers lose again? Or is there other options? These are all part of keeping people in the city. It’s almost as important as the research and the scientific work being done is how to make sure these people are happy when they come home and that there’s a lot to do and that they have a positive image of where they live. It’s not a…. it’s changing, but it’s not let’s say is a showy town as maybe other places, and I think that’s a good thing, and as well, something that we’re adjusting to, and that’s something when you deal with when you deal with your worldwide reputation.
Jordan: Well, tell me how the different aspects of health city work together to create something like this cancer treatment or some of the other ones were going to talk about. You mentioned that there’s artificial intelligence at play, there’s big data at play, there’s medical research. How do they work together in a way that they maybe don’t in other places?
Steve: I think one of the best examples is an institute, the institute for reconstructive medicine that’s based out of a hospital in the west end of the city. They rebuild people’s faces. Let’s say you have, you know, we don’t wish this on anyone and knock on wood, a terrible cancer or a terrible accident. Let’s say you’re in a car accident and you have severe damage done to your face, or because of cancer or some other sort of disease, doctors have to remove part of your face or you know, I talked to a patient who had throat cancer, and they basically had to take out much of his throat and replace it with mussels from other parts of his body. Prosthetics generally look like prosthetics, right? That, you know, you’d know if someone had, let’s say, a glass eye or a fake nose, a prosthetic ear, and a few years ago the whole thinking was why are doctors doing the measuring part? Because that’s not their expertise. Their expertise is going after the cancer. So the idea with IRSM, what they’re doing there is they brought together industrial designers, computer designers, to work on building the implants and as Ben King, who’s one of industrial designers there, said to me, he said, we sent the dog to the medical profession. Why don’t you use the carpenter’s adage measure twice, cut once and so using a lot technology now with these facial surgeries, not only are they building prosthetics that are custom made to people’s faces because they’re measuring and saying it’s not one size fits all because it used to be like that, you would, it was like getting a T-shirt like, oh, if you’re this age, you would get a small, medium or large prosthetic. Now it’s custom built to your face or if you need to get new teeth, or you need to get new parts to your face, they can look at it, and I mean, some of the stuff they’re doing is incredible. I mean, I described it walking in it was…. when you walk into it it looks like a Star Trek sickbay mixed with a costume parlor because there really are like masks, you know that they’re working on and molds and as well there’s this top end machinery to scan people’s heads and scan people’s faces, and, you know, they’re talking about developing dyes that change with the sun so that it looks so natural that your skin will change color if you’re outside like normal skin would. You know, thinking of things like that and as well it’s not just about the prosthetics it’s about they’re working on things like mapping your head. So let’s say they have to do a major surgery on your head, they map it first, so the surgeon could kind of practice looking at it through a 3D imager first, to make sure that they’re going the least invasive way, the shortest possible surgery and because of this, they can combine surgery. So maybe it used to be if you had a terrible cancer, you might be looking at 15-16 surgeries, seriously, some people were looking at, like five years worth of facial reconstructions or four years of these. Now they can combine these down, maybe to two or three, and the therapy that goes on afterwards to give patients more normal outcomes and the fact is, doctor after doctor has told me the most important thing in this is if you can obviously, if there’s something terrible like this happens to you or a family member, if you can tell them this isn’t going to take maybe 4-5 years, it’ll take maybe six months or maybe it won’t take 10 surgeries, it’ll take one. It helps your confidence as a patient, and really, we’re just learning now how much that means to recovery.
Jordan: What about from a patient’s perspective? I know if his was happening in the United States, we’d all be thinking that that’s great, this technology is wonderful, it’s never going to make its way down to people at my income level. How accessible is this technology to admin Edmontonians and Albertains right now?
Steve: It’s absolutely accessible. It is just part of the healthcare system, I mean, some of the IRSM, the facial reconstruction. I think it’s not so much about accessibility in terms of the health care system, I think it’s the fact that Edmonton has become a hub for almost all of Western Canada, so it’s a distance thing. They’re treating patients from Saskatoon, from Winnipeg, from the interior of BC, from the Northwest Territories. So it’s a huge intake area that Edmonton has. In fact, in their transplant area before things like lung transplants, they have the largest catchment area I have been told of anywhere in the world in terms of geography, maybe not in terms of numbers of people but in terms of hey, you need a transplant, you’ve got to come to Edmonton and you live in, I don’t know Yorkton, Saskatchewan, right? Or…. Lapa Manitoba. That’s where you’re going to go and that’s going to be your catchment area. So I think what the long term goal will be is to take some of this research in these breakthroughs that were seeing in Edmonton, and get this to other places across the country because the catchment area is so large. I mean, Toronto has a lot of facilities, but they’re;And while the numbers of patients are there, definitely the critical number by the sheer population, you don’t see people having to travel like, you know, a day and 1/2 by car to get to Toronto for it. Whereas, let’s say Edmonton that’s sort of commonplace, there’s a wide, wide catchment area in terms of what Edmonton’s doing simply because it’s become like this sort of health capital for Western Canada. But that’s a huge amount of geography they’ve gotta deal with the terms of the catchment area for patients.
Jordan: You mentioned lung transplants. You told me a crazy story about lung transplant technology, too, and I want you to tell that one because it seems really…. it seems insane.
Steve: I’ll tease it a little bit because we actually haven’t put that story out yet in the magazine. But let’s just put it this way there’s research being done at the University of Alberta right now. A couple of doctors are working on a machine, they’re in the clinical trial process so I’ll just say that I mean, obviously the biggest issue with transplanting is that when you take the organs from someone who just recently passed to get those organs maybe, you know, into a plane and then onto an ambulance, you have to put them on ice. Like they’re basically the organs are dead for the amount of time that they’re on ice, and they’re developing a machine that would keep them alive. So blood pumping through them, lungs would be breathing air as this is being transported, which absolutely changes the possibility of outcomes on clinical trials, of the chance of rejection, and there’s some long term possible benefits for this without giving out too much of what we’re going to write about in the future. But the long term is the whole idea of think about a patient. I hate to say this, like a car, but think about the ability to keep the patient alive by taking the organ out, keeping it alive in this machine, and then operating only on the organ, and then fixing it and putting it back in the patient. There’s definitely some outcomes because there’s certain things that say when you operate before, or when you treat a patient, that you hurt other organs. Let’s say you douse something in antibiotics that hurts the liver, right? The liver can’t handle certain things. But if you take that out in isolation, that organ, you can subject it to more treatment or medication that maybe if you could, if a patient who was in the patient, so you could think about doing this. But that’s a long term down the road thing we’re not there yet. Again, this gets back to Edmonton to being able to bring back some researchers who were in United States and attract them back to Canada.
Jordan: Has Edmonton seen that kind of influx since this project started? Is there anybody who can sort of offer any stats or even just reports from universities and medical facilities that we are repatriating some of our doctors and researchers?
Steve: I don’t have the exact number in terms of like, we don’t have that. I do know that I’ve met a couple of days doctors from the States who’ve moved from the States here in the course of the stories that I’ve been working on. There was one technician, he was here with the gamma knife. The gamma knife is not exclusive to Edmonton, there’s a few places that have it, which is a brain surgery suite that uses radiation so you don’t have to actually cut into the patient, the patient sits in it for about an hour, goes home after brain surgery. I know that sounds weird and strange, but it’s not necessarily new to… it’s not an Edmonton thing. It is just one of the few cities and I’ll say few that has it. But, you know, they brought up a doctor from Pittsburgh to operate that for a while. There is definitely a strong recruiting sense to everything that’s happening right now, they really are trying to let people know in the medical profession the door is open for your research to be done here, and the door is open for collaboration, the door is open if you want to come here or if you want to come and join and work on some of the projects here. I think we won’t see that tangible number, you know, it’ll take a few years still in terms of you know, how we’re going to see this works. Health City’s still a fairly new initiative, you know, that’s out there. So it’s interesting.
Jordan: Thanks, Steve.
Steve: Yeah, thanks, thanks a lot. Hopefully we’re going to see a lot of these things Impacting people’s lives in a positive way.
Jordan: Stephen Sandor editor of Avenue Edmonton. And that was The Big Story. For more from us, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn or at frequencypodcastnetwork.com and @frequencypods on Twitter, on Facebook, and Instagram. If you’ve got the time, head on over to your favorite podcast platform and if it lets you leave us a rating, leave us a review, you can subscribe for free everywhere. Recommend us. Somebody you know who likes news stories. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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