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Image of Holland Bloorview's research MRI suite's control room
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Holland Bloorview establishes Canada’s first imaging bank for kids with disabilities

New secure database will drive scientific discoveries – and unlock new possibilities for children living with medical complexities and their families

Thanks to a new Canada Foundation for Innovation John Evans Leaders Fund (CFI JELF) grant, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital’s Bloorview Research Institute (BRI) will launch a new MRI imaging bank specifically for children living with disabilities – the first of its kind in Canada.

While there are other imaging banks that exist currently, they only focus on one neurodevelopment condition, or may have images of a patient taken sporadically during a hospital stay or a clinical appointment. What is missing for researchers are a bank of medical images that can show the progression of a treatment or a medical condition over a long period of time, or have one large dataset that covers off more than one type of neurodevelopmental condition, which can help scientists to uncover new discoveries.

What’s more, over the last 40 years, only 12 per cent of published pediatric studies involving MRI scans have included children or youth with disabilities. This means there is a scarcity of evidence to inform condition-specific treatments for children and youth in these population groups.

“In the scientific world, a lot of therapies are based on adults or typically developed kids—we know kids with disabilities may not be well represented by those populations,” says Dr. Tom Chau, vice president of research at Holland Bloorview and nominated principal investigator of the grant awarded late last month. Dr. Chau is also a full professor at University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto and director of the Bloorview Research Institute.

“Our vision with this project is that every kid that comes through Holland Bloorview—with their consent of course—will help contribute to this data bank and give access to other researchers, to help them study interventions.”

With the image bank, Holland Bloorview can transform the scientific landscape of childhood disabilities. The hospital currently serves more than 8,000 clients each year with a wide range of disabilities and complex medical needs including autism, cerebral palsy, acquired brain injury and neuromuscular conditions. Once the image bank is set up, clients can do regular routine MRIs scan in the hospital’s child-friendly, accessible research MRI suite along with their clinical out-patient appointments. This information can then be collected and safely stored in the image bank for pediatric disability researchers at Holland Bloorview and at other academic research hospitals to access and make further advances in their research.

“Imagine a neurodevelopmental condition as one giant puzzle,” says Mani Kang, director of BRI’s research operations and business development. “Scientists all around the world are working on solving this puzzle through their individual research studies. Our imaging bank, in a sense, is giving them all the puzzle pieces but in a scrambled fashion. By tapping into this database, they will have the ability to put the puzzle together and come up with new science discoveries.

This is very powerful because we can forge new partnerships with other global researchers, answer new questions and ultimately influence future pediatric research, which can lead to improved client care on a national and international scale for families.” 

For Dr. Bradley MacIntosh, one of the project team’s co-investigators who is a senior scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre’s research institute and an expert in functional neuroimaging, this image bank holds great promise.  “This MRI image bank is exciting because imaging features can be seen from one patient group may help us understand another patient group due to commonalities in the data. This is relevant to children and youth who may have neurodevelopmental challenges.”

Over the next 12 months, the research team will work on setting up a secure storage system to collect and house the MRI scans along with clinical data collected from clients with their consent during their outpatient appointments at Holland Bloorview, which total over 60,000 yearly. A robust governance structure will also be developed with the appropriate harmonized protocols as other imaging banks worldwide so that researchers can have access to this rich database.

The anticipated date for the image bank to be operational is sometime in 2025.

The research team members are: Dr. Tom Chau, Dr. Evdokia Anagnostou, Dr. Deryk Beal, Dr. Shannon Scratch, Dr. Darcy Fehlings, Mani Kang, and Dr. Bradley MacIntosh.

Dr. Chau’s grant is one of 150 CFI-funded projects awarded to 43 institutions across the country to carry out world-class research and technology development.

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