Dr. Ivar Mendez, University of Saskatchewan
Can you describe your area of research and how it is helping address a health-related issue in Saskatchewan?
My research is focused on the development of new technologies to repair the human brain and the use of virtual care technologies to decrease inequity in health care delivery.
For the past decade, I have been interested in developing robotic remote presence technology to increase access to health care to the most remote and underserviced communities in the province of Saskatchewan. We have established one of the most advanced Virtual Care Programs in Canada with the use of remote presence robotics that allow us to provide acute medical care to remote populations. Our work is centered on the most vulnerable population such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. During the pandemic, our innovative robotic ultrasound system provided prenatal ultrasonography to several indigenous communities that were locked down because of COVID outbreaks. Our Research team at the Remote Presence Robotic Laboratory has national and international collaborations with numerous research groups and industries. We are currently testing wearable virtual care technologies that could be used in emergency situations as well as in the operating room.
The second area of my research is directed to the use of stem cells to repair the human brain in incurable neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease. The Cell Restoration Laboratory works with animal models of Parkinson’s disease and the use of autologous stem cells that are manufactured in a self-contained robotic facility.
Our Neuromodulation Clinical Program provides state-of-the-art neurosurgical care to patients from Saskatchewan and across Canada. We implant neuromodulation devices to treat movement disorders, intractable depression and chronic pain.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work?
Our Research Programs are essentially translational, discoveries and innovations at the Cell
Restoration and Remote Presence Robotic Laboratories are applied to the clinical realm. The work with underserviced and indigenous communities is particularly rewarding, as virtual care technologies allow us to provide real time care to patients that otherwise would have significant difficulty accessing health care services.
Our work with neuromodulation technology such as deep brain stimulation and spinal cord
stimulation has a significant impact on the life of patients that suffer the effects of neurodegenerative diseases, intractable depression and chronic pain. It is extremely rewarding to see that our research can be applied to improve function and decrease suffering of these patients.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
With the onset of the COVID pandemic, it was clear that virtual care was an important tool in the provision of health care services to our population. Jurisdictional, administrative and perception barriers for the wide implementation of virtual care have been challenging. We are continuing to work to expand this program to reach the most remote communities in Saskatchewan. The support of research funders such as the SHRF are crucial in this task.
How did you first become interested in this area of research? What inspires you to do the work that you do?
I became interested in the idea of repairing the human brain while I was training as a neurosurgeon. It was clear to me that serious injuries to the brain and the spinal cord could one day be tackled by repair technologies. With the advent of stem cells and their ability to be integrated into the adult central nervous system, the prospect of repairing the brain is on the horizon.
In terms of our work with virtual care robotic remote presence technologies, I felt that advances in telecommunications, computers and robotic technology could be used to provide real time medical care to remote and underserviced populations. I started this work while I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia and our team deployed the first virtual care robotic system in Nain, Labrador. During this time, we also conducted the first long distance neurosurgical mentoring operation in the world using a surgical robot.
Improving the health of the most disadvantaged and remote populations by using virtual care technologies and seeing the benefit of neuromodulation devices in our patients inspires me on a daily basis. As a Physician/Scientist, improving the human condition is what keeps me going both in the laboratory bench and in the operating room.
Where is your research headed in the next five years?
The use of virtual technologies for the delivery of health is changing the way we practice medicine. Virtual care is here to stay and the work that we have done at the University of Saskatchewan will continue to grow as we develop new and improved technologies that will allow us to fulfill the goal of providing timely and exemplary care to anybody regardless of their geographical location.
The prospects of brain repair using stem cell technology are immense. We will be concentrating in the applications of standardized production of autologous stem cells for Parkinson’s Disease and Huntington’s Disease. We will also investigate the use of new brain targets for the treatment of movement disorders and conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and addictions.
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