Dr. Robert E. Burrell MSC, PhD, FCAHS, FNAI
Rob Burrell is an inventive and innovative biomedical engineer who revolutionized burn and wound care. His ActicoatTM dressings — the world’s first therapeutic use of nanotechnology — have spawned a new industry of antimicrobial coatings on medical devices that have treated life-threatening infections for millions of people around the world. The result is an achievement of international significance for human health and quality of life.
“People are always trying to shoehorn me as a nanotechnologist. But I would tell you I'm not a nanotechnologist. I'm a problem solver. Nanotechnology to me is a tool and I use it whenever I have to — and I get quite innovative and inventive around using it — but it's not my reason for being.”
Born in Oakville, Ontario, in 1952, Robert Edward Burrell was lucky to survive his birth and spent his first weeks at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. That difficult entry into the world, combined with concern for his father’s health over the years, fueled Rob’s interest in helping others.
Innovation runs in Rob’s family. Growing up next door to his maternal grandparents, he spent hours with his grandfather in his shop. His paternal grandfather was an inventor who developed and patented a high efficiency carburetor that unfortunately led to the demise of his garage. Rob’s father, a carpenter by trade, was equally innovative as he and Rob built many things together over the years.
That incubator of discovery led Rob to take a broad approach to his academic education, pursuing degrees in zoology and soil microbiology at the University of Guelph, followed by a PhD in biology-ecotoxicology and a postdoctoral fellowship in chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo. Along the way, he took a large number of plant biology courses at Guelph. It’s that broad education that Rob brings to the medical problems he seeks to solve.
Rob credits two exceptional mentors with putting him on the right path. Dr. Charles Corke in Guelph encouraged Rob to be innovative. They were able to publish seven papers out of Rob’s master's thesis. Dr. Larry Morris hired Rob to work as a biomedical engineer at Alcan International. When Larry moved west in 1992, he recruited Rob again, this time to Larry’s new team at the Westaim Corporation — a federal-provincial-corporate initiative — to develop and commercialize advanced materials.
Westaim was the ideal place for Rob to start working on his ideas around the anti-microbial properties of silver and their use in medical applications. His innovative Acticoat™ bandages were the result. Through experimentation, Rob discovered that silver works as a potent anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory agent when it is in a nanocrystalline state. In other words, the silver crystals used in ActicoatTM — as small as 20 atoms in size — help the body heal quickly.
The sustained release of silver from Acticoat™ dressings means they can be left in place for up to a week versus the daily (or more frequent) changes of dressings with conventional burn/wound treatments. This dramatically reduces the pain and suffering associated with dressing changes as it accelerates the healing process.
Acticoat™ dressings have dramatically improved survival rates and recovery times for patients. In short, the dressings have changed — and continue to change — the quality of life for people in hospitals and nursing homes around the world.
The effectiveness of Acticoat™ is especially important when responding to mass casualty situations with large numbers of burn victims. The dressings were instrumental in saving lives following the 9/11 terrorist attack and again in 2003 after the Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island. When terrorists struck in October 2002 and bombed a nightclub in Bali, Rob was in Australia on a speaking tour to introduce doctors to Acticoat™. He spent the next five days in the operating theatres of Australia’s major hospitals, guiding the use of the bandages. Despite sustaining burns to 90-95 per cent of their bodies, an unprecedented number of victims survived, largely due to Acticoat™. Given the dramatic successes achieved with Rob’s dressings, they are now sold in over 100 countries and are available over the counter in Canada.
Along the way, Rob’s career has seen him wear a number of hats, many at the same time. He is the Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, a professor in the Faculty of Engineering, and a professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. He was the Canada Research Chair in Nanostructured Biomaterials at the University of Alberta. As an innovator, he is a major supporter of the Health City Initiative and the various incubators on and near campus that help emerging technology companies grow successfully. He’s a proud father and grandfather. And he is proud to be husband to his wife, Leigh.
It’s hard to overstate the game-changing nature of Rob’s innovation, which is now considered to be one of the greatest improvements — and perhaps the greatest improvement — in the history of burn and wound treatment. It has also ushered in a world-wide revolution in antimicrobial coatings for medical products beyond bandages. His innovative technology is now being tested for use in medical devices like stents, catheters and implants.
“Biomedical engineering is the application of engineering principles to medical problems and solving them,” explains Rob. “The advantage of being an engineer first is engineers are taught to solve problems. Biologists by and large — and I am one of them — are taught to memorize facts. And so, if you can combine the problem solving with the facts, I think you can solve some very interesting problems.”
And the world has noticed. Rob has received international recognitions in both engineering and medicine, among them 2008 World Union of Wound Healing Societies’ Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2009 Manning Innovation Award, the 2009 ASM Engineered Materials Award, and the 2010 Jonas Salk Award, a lifetime achievement award presented annually to a Canadian who has made a new and outstanding contribution in science or medicine.
In 2013, he was made a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, considered one of the highest honours for individuals in the Canadian health sciences community. In 2018, he was made a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, which is the United States’ highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors.
In 2016, he was one of six Canadians to win the inaugural round of the Governor General’s Innovation Awards. Given that his innovation was considered among decades’ worth of innovations, it was a significant achievement. That same year, Rob also received the Meritorious Service Cross. He is also a recipient of the Alberta Centennial Medal.
As friends and colleagues are easing into retirement, Rob shows no signs of slowing down. He says there are still medical challenges for which he wants to find solutions. In fact, he has over 300 patents and patents pending worldwide. They range from nanostructured materials for medical applications — from cell sorting through advanced diagnostics to active wound care products like ActicoatTM dressings — to various bioprocesses and stem cells use in agriculture. He is currently developing life-saving technology to diagnose and treat infectious diseases, including those caused by antibiotic-resistant organisms, which kill millions of people every year.
“I have an older brother who’s an orthopedic surgeon and he said to me, ‘I went into medicine and surgery, so I could help people. On an average day I might help six or seven people, maybe eight on a big day….With your science and research, you help millions every day.’ It's a good feeling.”
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