Paul Santerre: making medical devices safer and better

Professor Paul Santerre began his career at the University in 1993 in the Faculty of Dentistry and is a member of the Centre for Biomaterials, where he has conducted research into biomaterials – molecules and polymers designed to interact with biological systems – and their applications. He became a core faculty member at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) in 1999 when this unit was merged with the Centre for Biomaterials, and has been IBBME’s Director since 2008.

An entrepreneur as well as a professor, Santerre started Interface Biologics Inc. in 2001 with a former graduate student. Last year, one of the company’s products, Endexo™, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Agency for use in medical devices in the United States –passing a major regulatory hurdle.  The technology is now also in clinical use in Canada and Europe.

Santerre is the recipient of an Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Synergy Innovation Award, which recognizes outstanding achievements in collaborations between universities and industries.

Tell us about your research.
In my case, the research awarded was all about my having developed biomaterials technologies that I helped transfer into a  young company, Interface Biologics, Inc. There are many inventors who dump their technologies ”over the wall” – they don’t connect with the right experts, don’t do their research on patents, etc.- whereas I held the CEO position for three years while the company was organizing. I helped them incubate within the University, provide the laboratory support and contacts for University resources needed, and introduced them to all my connections in the medical device area.

The outcome of all this effort was the successful peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) which is now being sold in Canada, Europe and US by Angiodynamics. Fresenius, a dialysis company in the US, is using the Endexo technology to help prevent blood clots during dialysis, which is a major problem for these patients. There are not a lot of start-up companies that have made it from concept and bench to market and clinic, but hopefully that will change in Canada with a few more success stories.

Currently Interface is working on a “ drug eluding balloon” project. Basically, a balloon is inserted into a catheter line and can be run up the blood stream into damaged or diseased coronary vessels. We’re hoping that our unique blood compatible coatings on the balloon, once inflated, will release a drug that stays in the tissues for a week or so, enabling clinicians to use this technology rather than insert more heart stents post re-blockage of  blood vessels after an initial stent placement.

What kind of impact could this research have for society?
This is all about creating a culture of entrepreneurship in Ontario. Biomedical engineering is a leading growth industry within the health-care sectors which made up 11% of Canada’s GDP last year. My vision is that southern Ontario will become a medical devices hub that will affect society in every way.

If Interface is still here in 20 years, for instance, I expect them to grow from its current 25 employees to 200. They can be a major hi-tech supplier for biomedical devices.

These products are important in that they cost less to the health-care system as they are cheap to implement and yet they can provide a quality of care that reduces long-term chronic challenges for the patient and the health care system. The products coming out of these biomedical devices companies are all designed to minimize secondary problems that occur from hospitalizations, and to help people who are in chronic therapies such as kidney dialysis.

What sort of changes/developments have you witnessed over the course of your career?
This entrepreneurial culture was completely absent in this field within Canada – and quite broadly in academia – in the 1980s when I was doing my schooling. Academia was only giving back to society individuals trained in their theoretical domains, and I think as the world has globalized, nations have become more competitive.
We’ve never had a farm league of entrepreneurs, and there was a pretty dramatic change to the education system about 15 years ago, introducing the relevance of everyday applications of the theoretical knowledge that universities are now implementing.

What drew you to this field?
I was very fortunate in my first summer student job in 1982 with my physical chemistry professor. He was asked to participate in  the early stages of projects out of the oil sands in Alberta.   He was an applied scientist and I learn to see the links between University and industry at that time.  My first ever research project exposed me to biomaterials, developing electrobes to measure the DNA uptake on polymer surfaces. This was around the time when we were just unraveling our knowledge of DNA and its real potential, and developing the tools to manage and study DNA.  It was very exciting.

Why U of T?
I came here because even back in 1993, the University of Toronto was pretty much the epicentre of biomaterials in Canada. I was drawn in by the Centre for Biomaterials, which was becoming very strong.

What advice would you give to a student just starting out in this field?
This field is exploding. If you’d asked me that question six or seven years ago I’d say this is a field getting ready to explode. The “big bang” is happening now.

Imagine: there are 17 spins off companies through the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering alone, and I have many colleagues participating in similar activity in other departments and universities.

Biomedical companies can’t find enough of the highly specialized employees they need. These students can get jobs, they know the opportunities are there. Most of them are scooped up and have three to four job offers when they graduate from our Institute’s clinical engineering program alone. The opportunities are exponential. It is quite exciting.