Canada’s first biomedical engineering research institute

The first Canadian biomedical engineering research institute remains a world leader

What started out as an informal research centre is now a world leader in the field of upper limb prosthetics – and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.

Located on UNB's Fredericton campus, the Institute of Biomedical Engineering was Canada’s first biomedical engineering research institute. Today, its unique research and rare location keeps it ahead of the game.

“[It’s] the only clinic on a university campus, as far as I know in North America and maybe the world. There are benefits that go both ways,” said Dr. Kevin Englehart, director of the institute.

“For the clinic they get to see what the researchers are doing and where the field may be 10 years down the road. For the researchers, being able to have a clinic on the premises grounds the research into practical issues. If a bunch of engineers cook up an idea that’s absolutely ridiculous as far as a clinician is concerned, they’ll let you know right away.”

From an informal centre to a world leading institute

In the 1950s, UNB’s Dr. Robert Scott wanted to provide wheelchair users with better control of their mobility aide – so he founded the first biomedical engineering research institute.

Scott was working with the local rehabilitation centre to help people control their wheelchairs better. The two groups were working on improved wheelchair technologies when the thalidomide tragedy struck and thousands of babies were born with underdeveloped limbs, turning the research in a new direction, according to Englehart.

“There wasn’t really a good solution for those people at the time and so the idea was to create something that would allow them to control a powered limb using their own remaining muscles. Basically it invented a new field called myoelectric prostheses,” he said.

The institute eventually expanded its research from just upper-limb prosthetics into biomechanics like human motion analysis and how people with certain mobility impairing conditions walk.

Today, the institute does research into fields such as wearable devices to help amputees control an artificial limb or exoskeleton.

Researchers are currently working on creating a new exoskeleton for people with mobility impairments – but ones that are less expensive and more efficient.

Engineering and Kinesiology students working together

Approximately 130 patients with upper-limb prosthetics visit the institute every year. About 40 of those clients are new fittings.

With the institute being located on UNB’s campus, it’s a hub for both graduate and undergraduate students.

Graduate students are involved in research, while Englehart said undergraduate students participate in design projects, sometimes as summer students.

The institute houses researchers from both the engineering and kinesiology faculties, in addition to partnering with the Stan Cassidy Centre for Rehabilitation.

Research that brings the world to UNB

Centres of this nature are still rare in Canada, with only a dozen or so existing across the country.

The institute at UNB is well regarded across the world for its work, and every three years it hosts an international myoelectric controls symposium.

“The world comes to UNB – and this is academics, it’s clinicians and it’s industry, all the leaders in the field come here,” Englehart said.

“This is the most important meeting in the world for this field, so it’s an important role that we play.”

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