AI Tool Prevents Strokes

Karina Gasbarrino, a McGill University PhD graduate has dedicated her career to enhancing the early prediction and prevention of strokes, and she created a tool that uses artificial intelligence (AI) that does just that. This week, her work won her the Mitacs Social Entrepreneurship Award, a national innovation award presented to an applicant whose start-up works to address or solve social, cultural or humanitarian issues. Gasbarrino said this recognition means a lot to her, as she chose to delve into this kind of research based on a personal experience.

Harmful fatty deposits in the arteries of the neck, called plaques, are the main cause of strokes when ruptured

It really started off because we have a family history of cardiovascular disease,” Gasbarrino said. “I ended up losing my grandfather over 10 years ago due to a stroke.” “It was really instantaneous, like one minute he was here, the next he was not. And so that really impacted me and my family and it gave me the drive to want to go into research and really understand what causes these strokes and how we could better predict and prevent them.

Gasbarrino is the co-founder and COO of digital health start-up PLAKK, a software which uses image analysis technology to more accurately examine harmful fatty deposits in the arteries of the neck, called plaques, which, when ruptured, are the main cause of strokes. “What we’re trying to do with our technology is provide clinicians with more information about those plaques … and by understanding that, we can better determine whether a patient is at risk of having a stroke,” she said.

According to Gasbarrino, as it stands, there is no blood test that can used to detect plaques in the neck artery. Imaging is required, but even then, there’s no tool to determine what that plaque is composed of or how dangerous it is. “That’s why we’re developing the technology,” she said. “We want to be able to intervene and get patients the treatment that they need before they end up having a stroke.”

The tool is currently in the validation phase and the team is working to get regulatory approval in the coming six months. The hope is to have the technology implemented in a few centres across Canada as well as some in the U.S. by early 2023. Gasbarrino said the development of this technology would not have been possible without the support of her PhD supervisor, Dr. Stella S. Daskalopoulou, a clinician-scientist at the Montreal University Health Centre, as well as Kashif Khan, another recent PhD graduate from McGill University involved in the project.


How to Repair Damaged Bones

Over the last 30 years, the scientific community has been working to develop a synthetic alternative to bone grafts for repairing diseased or damaged bone. McGill University researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to advance a novel method for growing synthetic bone tissue. The rapidly advancing field of  tissue engineering is focused on growing bone  in the lab on materials called scaffolds, then transferring these structures into a person’s body to repair bone damage. Like the bone it mimics, scaffolds need an interconnected network of small and large pores that allow cells and nutrients to spread and help generate new bone tissue. The McGill team’s promising process works by modifying the internal structure of a material, called , to make it more conducive to regenerating bone tissue.

Graphene oxide is an ultrathin, extra strong compound that is being used increasingly in electronics, optics, chemistry, energy storage, and biology. One of its  is that when  are placed on it, they tend to transform into bone-generating cells called osteoblasts. The multidisciplinary group—comprising researchers from McGill‘s Departments of Mining and Materials Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Dentistry—found that adding an emulsion of oil and water to the graphene oxide, then freezing it at two different temperatures, yielded two different sizes of pores throughout the material.Professor Marta Cerruti said that when they “seeded” the now-porous scaffolding with stem cells from mouse bone marrow, the cells multiplied and spread inside the network of pores, a promising sign the new approach could eventually be used to regenerate bone tissue in humans.

We showed that the scaffolds are completely biocompatible, that the cells are happy when you put them in there, and that they’re able to penetrate all through the scaffold and colonize the whole scaffold,” she stated.

The researchers used the BMIT-BM beamline at the CLS to visualize the different sized pores inside the scaffolding as well as the growth and spread of the cells. Lead researcher Yiwen Chen, a Ph.D. student working under Cerruti, said their work would not have been possible without the synchrotron because the low density of graphene oxide means it absorbs only a very small amount of light.

To our knowledge, this is the first time that people have used synchrotron light to see the structure of graphene oxide scaffolds,” said Chen.


Harvesting Clean Hydrogen Fuel Through Artificial Photosynthesis

A new, stable artificial photosynthesis device doubles the efficiency of harnessing sunlight to break apart both fresh and salt water, generating hydrogen that can then be used in fuel cells.

The device could also be reconfigured to turn carbon dioxide back into fuel.

Hydrogen is the cleanest-burning fuel, with water as its only emission. But hydrogen production is not always environmentally friendly. Conventional methods require natural gas or electrical power. The method advanced by the new device, called direct solar water splitting, only uses water and light from the sun.

If we can directly store solar energy as a chemical fuel, like what nature does with photosynthesis, we could solve a fundamental challenge of renewable energy,” said Zetian Mi, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Michigan who led the research while at McGill University in Montreal.

Faqrul Alam Chowdhury, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering at McGill, said the problem with solar cells is that they cannot store electricity without batteries, which have a high overall cost and limited life.

The device is made from the same widely used materials as solar cells and other electronics, including silicon and gallium nitride (often found in LEDs). With an industry-ready design that operates with just sunlight and seawater, the device paves the way for large-scale production of clean hydrogen fuel.

Previous direct solar water splitters have achieved a little more than 1 percent stable solar-to-hydrogen efficiency in fresh or saltwater. Other approaches suffer from the use of costly, inefficient or unstable materials, such as titanium dioxide, that also might involve adding highly acidic solutions to reach higher efficiencies. Mi and his team, however, achieved more than 3 percent solar-to-hydrogen efficiency.