Creating a clean water supply, using light to save lives

Sub-title: 
Stewart Aitchison on research helping people in Canada, India and around the world
Author: 
Terry Lavender

An estimated 768 million people in the world – about one tenth of the world’s population – do not have access to safe water.

In Canada alone, 5 million people lack access to a reliable source of safe drinking water, especially in rural areas or on reserves.

Now, the Indian Government’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and IC-IMPACTS  a Canadian Network Centre of Excellence, have announced a joint “Water for Health” initiative, supporting collaborative research projects focused on developing and evaluating new technologies in the research areas of water and health.

“Access to safe water is a significant issue around the world,” says University of Toronto electrical engineering professor Stewart Aitchison, one of the founders of IC-IMPACTS. “This is an excellent opportunity for Canadian and India researchers to partner on projects which will develop new solutions to ensure access to safe and clean water for communities in both countries.

DBT and IC-IMPACTS (the India-Canada Centre for Innovative Multidisciplinary Partnerships to Accelerate Community Transformation and Sustainability) will each commit $1.5 million to help strengthen innovative partnerships between researchers working in India and Canada, and to help stimulate practical research outcomes applied in communities of both nations.

U of T News reporter Terry Lavender talked to Aitchison, IC-IMPACT’s associate scientific director and theme lead for public health: disease prevention and treatment, about the announcement and the research it supports. This interview has been edited and condensed.

What exactly is IC-IMPACTS?
IC-IMPACTS is basically a funding organization for research collaborations between Canada and India. It provides funding for research in one of three theme areas − integrated water management, safe and sustainable infrastructure or public health − that affect both Canada and India.

It was established in 2012 through the Canadian Networks of Centres of Excellence, and one of its goals is to demonstrate technologies and give Canadian companies the opportunity to commercially develop these technologies. Another goal is to stimulate trade between the two nations.

What’s U of T’s role?
The University of Toronto is one of the three founding institutions; the others were the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta. But IC-IMPACTS funding is available to any Canadian researcher.

You’re a professor of photonics – the study of light and its functions. How does photonics connect with health?
There is actually a significant overlap between photonics and public health. A significant number of electrical engineering projects have medical implications. For example, the ChipCare project, which I am involved in is developing a handheld tester for monitoring infection-fighting white blood cells.

That type of technology is being driven by advances in image processing. Your smart phone can now do quite complex number and data processing, so with advances in imaging, in processing, you have all these health apps now in your hand that measure how many steps you take or your heart rate. We're not at the Star Trek tricorder stage – you can’t wave a device at somebody and get a full medical analysis yet – but these devices are getting more versatile all the time.

What excites you about IC-IMPACTS?
After 30 years of doing research, it's the opportunity to take technology that's come out of our labs, and make a real impact.

We prototyped ChipCare in 2007, and now that technology has developed to the point that is almost ready to give to a field worker to go out and test. A lot of technologies – power systems, communications, electronics, computer engineering, control systems, photonics, biomedical and electromagnetics – are coming together to make these devices work, but you need to layer on that an understanding of real health care problems. That’s the opportunity that IC-IMPACTS gives us.

In India some areas have limited access to primary health care and people who are sick are often a long way from any source of help; so these mobile technologies will have applications in that setting. It'll also have applications in remote communities in Canada that are not within easy distance of getting to a hospital.

What other U of T projects fall under IC-IMPACTS?
Shamim Sheikh and Frank Vecchio, both in Civil Engineering, are working on what you could call “green concrete” technology. Sheikh is working on developing durable and more economical structural concepts and innovative life extension techniques to create sustainable and robust infrastructure, while Vecchio is developing state-of-the-art analysis tools for concrete structures.

Ted Sargent in Electrical and Computer Engineering is working with the University of Alberta on solar cells for powering local remote treatment sensors for water.

Do students benefit from IC-IMPACTS?
These projects provide training opportunities for students because these projects are applied and they directly benefit students. Students also gain the opportunities to collaborate with Indian researchers.

We are planning a week-long workshop later this year on optical sensing technologies for infrastructure, water and health care. The session will bring together Canadian and Indian students and speakers from Canadian and Indian industry. Students will learn from international experts, they will learn about industrial problems and have a chance to present a poster, participate in a panel discussion, and other activities.

You’ve been involved with IC-IMPACTS since it began in the fall of 2012. What are the highlights of the organization’s first 18 months?  
The connects I've made with researchers in India. For example, one of our first tasks was to develop a workshop at Baba Farid University in Faridkot in the Punjab. It’s a relatively small institution that trains nurses and health care. They gave a number of presentations on issues and problems in that part of the Punjab. The workshop was focused on water for health and that workshop plus our meetings with DBT and the Public Health Foundation of India led eventually to the Water for Health initiative.

How can U of T researchers benefit from IC-IMPACTS?
It’s a great opportunity for researchers to engage with India. We provide funding, we provide opportunities to travel and we provide opportunities to support students. I see it as a way of pump-priming future opportunities to partner with India and develop strong research relations.

What else are you working on these days?
One of the projects we’ve been working on is blood glucose monitoring. The process is relatively simple; you shine some laser light onto the tissue and the molecules all vibrate and the light is scattered. Most of the light goes off at the same wavelength but some of it comes off at slightly different wavelengths. That process can be used to monitor the amount of glucose in the skin or – if you get close to a vein – in the actual blood. It is a way of blood glucose monitoring with no contact, no pinprick, no sample that we need to take. The trouble is the box is a very sensitive $20,000 piece of equipment with a laser and spectrometer, so what we're working on is designing an integrated system that could allow that to be miniaturized onto a chip.

We still have a long way to go, but it's a project that developed out of telecoms technology that has applications for biomedical, non-invasive health care technologies.