Amid new research about the potential impact of COVID-19 on the brain, a Toronto medical firm is showcasing lighter, faster and cheaper MRI technology that makes it easier to scan patients.
Synaptive, a startup that began across the street from Queen’s Park at the MaRS Discovery District, has developed the Evry, a magnetic resonance imaging machine that’s one-fifth the size and weight of the cumbersome existing machines — and about one-eighth the price.
Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli toured the company’s manufacturing facility Monday in a former textile factory on Richmond St. W., and said the technology is “very impressive.”
“It’s amazing that it’s made in downtown Toronto. It’s designed, developed and constructed … in Ontario,” Fedeli said Monday after a visit to the 150-employee firm.
“Synaptive has a great case to make to places like Ontario’s Ministry of Health and other health facilities around the world,” the minister said, standing beside crates containing one of the 2,000-pound machines that is being shipped to a Manhattan hospital.
There is already an Evry at the University Health Network’s Toronto General Hospital and another in Halifax, with dozens more in operation around the world.
Company president and co-founder Cameron Piron said researchers have detected brain problems in roughly one-third of COVID-19 patients, which suggests more people will have to get scanned in the future.
An American study released last week suggested coronavirus, which had originally been thought to be a respiratory disease, also attacks brain cells, sucking up oxygen and causing cell damage.
Similarly, researchers in the United Kingdom found in July there could be nerve damage and other neurological problems from the virus.
But traditional MRI machines are massive and expensive — weighing between 10,000 and 20,000 pounds depending upon the size of their magnets and requiring 2,000 square feet of space in a hospital.
They are so cumbersome that hospitals must have their floors reinforced and cranes are needed to install some of the largest machines.
Piron said his firm’s machines take up just 250 square feet and cost $1.2 million (U.S.), compared to $10 million (U.S.) for the previous technology.
“With the smaller magnet, we are seeing about a quarter of the cost per scan,” he said, noting the new MRIs could replace computerized tomography (CT) scans that use inexpensive old X-ray technology.
As well, the Toronto-made machine can scan COVID-19 patients while they are on ventilators — a significant development.
Fedeli, who along with Premier Doug Ford has been pushing domestic manufacturing of medical technology so Ontario doesn’t have to depend upon foreign suppliers, said the province must continue to improve the commercialization of such innovations.
“When we talk about R and D, we are great at the R, but we have to get better at the D,” the minister said, referring to research and development.
That Synaptive began at MaRS — the Ontario government’s medical and research sciences incubator —is encouraging, he added.
“This is a successful case study in an idea that becomes a product that can be purchased worldwide.”
Even though COVID-19 has forced 90 per cent of the firm’s employees to work remotely — including all the software engineers — the pandemic has increased demand for its other products.
A robotic arm, which uses Canadarm technology from the NASA space shuttle program, is being manufactured with auto-parts giant Linamar in Guelph.
It enables surgeons to remotely perform procedures on patients who may have contracted COVID-19 and is already in use in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Halifax and, by next year, in Toronto.
Using 3-D glasses similar to those worn in IMAX theatres and brain-mapping done by Western University scientists, doctors can more easily navigate when doing procedures.