Heart health Innovation Sunnybrook Magazine Sunnybrook Magazine - Fall 2019

Michelle went from an investment banker, to inventing a device that could save lives

Dr. Brian Courtney and Michelle Jennett beside imaging technology that can be used in conjunction with RescuBeat

Former investment banking analyst Michelle Jennett switched careers to pursue her passion for medicine. Now, she’s developing RescuBeat, a potentially life-saving CPR device born and nurtured at Sunnybrook

Photography by Doug Nicholson

Michelle Jennett went from helping people save money to working on a device that could save lives.

In 2015, she was an investment banking analyst at a leading firm in New York. But she found herself drawn to another part of the city once she left the office.

“I was always volunteering Saturday nights in the emergency room,” she says. “So in the back of my mind, there was this passion for [medicine].”

Those evenings of cleaning hospital beds and giving out warm blankets to patients were fulfilling in a way the financial realm wasn’t. Jennett decided to move back to her home province of Ontario to pursue pre-medical school, a move that ultimately led her to Sunnybrook’s Medventions program.

Medventions was founded through the Schulich Heart Program in 2016 as a way to put technological innovations on the path to commercialization. The program connects aspiring medtech entrepreneurs with scientists, clinicians and engineers to develop medical devices that address very specific problems in the hospital environment.

Jennett went through the Medventions program as a fellow in 2018, and subsequently co-invented one of the program’s most promising innovations – a commercially viable medical device called RescuBeat, designed to improve life-saving measures in critical care environments.

RescuBeat has the potential to overcome a number of challenges associated with administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to patients in cardiac arrest in the catheterization (cath) lab.

Cath labs are specialized examination and treatment rooms equipped with diagnostic imaging equipment.

While most patients brought to the cardiac cath lab have a relatively low risk of complications, some patients, emergent cases in particular, are at a higher risk of cardiac arrest, says  Dr. Brian Courtney, an interventional cardiologist at Sunnybrook and co-inventor of RescuBeat.

CPR compresses the chest and pumps blood from the heart to the rest of the body to prevent irreparable damage to critical organs. With the right amount of pressure and consistency, compressions can save a patient on the verge of dying, but CPR is difficult and exhausting to administer by hand, even for trained health professionals.

And while mechanical CPR devices already exist, which can help eliminate human error and fatigue, “their use is unfavourable in situations like the catheterization lab for heart attack patients,” Jennett says.

In the back of my mind, there was this passion for [medicine].

– Michelle Jennett

“The problem in the lab is  you do not want to have a person standing in the path of X-rays while administering manual CPR because they will get exposed to unwanted radiation,”  Dr. Courtney says.

The X-ray exposure may be necessary for a patient who may die without the help of an angiogram. During an angiogram, a hollow, thin tube called a catheter is inserted into the cardiac blood vessel through the skin, allowing doctors to examine how well the heart is working. And while one-time exposure is unlikely to lead to lasting harm, health-care providers would inevitably be exposed multiple times during the course of a career performing CPR in the lab on several occasions.

Mechanical CPR devices prevent this kind of exposure. But devices currently on the market can block X-rays that allow cardiologists from viewing the vessels of the heart during an angiogram, a necessity during a heart attack.

Jennett witnessed this problem first-hand while shadowing Dr. Courtney as part of her Medventions learning experience.

“One of the existing [CPR] devices was placed on the patient and it blocked views of the arteries during the angiogram, making it very difficult to proceed with the procedure,” she says. “That’s when we realized there must be a better way.”

The moment served as a critical juncture in the development of RescuBeat. Jennett and the team – which consisted of herself, Dr. Courtney and engineers Reniel Engelbrecht and Miles Montgomery – had identified a major problem worth solving. And that’s a key part of the Medventions process, says Ahmed Nasef, Medventions program manager.

“We immerse multi-disciplinary teams of clinicians, engineers and people from a business background in the clinical environment at Sunnybrook where they spend a substantial amount of time trying to identify challenges that impose a significant medical burden,” Nasef says.

The Medventions Internship Program gives participants the chance to find these sorts of problems by letting them shadow health-care professionals at Sunnybrook for the first half of the four-month program.

“This really is the most important phase,” Nasef says. “Because if you get this stage right, chances are you will likely develop a solution that has high commercialization potential.”

Dr. Courtney points out that medical devices comprise a multi-billion-dollar industry, yet Canada accounts for a small fraction of this economy. 

“We import $8 billion in medical devices and export $3 billion in medical devices,” he says. “We know we have great engineering talent, research infrastructure and clinicians, so why is it we don’t develop a lot of good medical technology?”

Dr. Courtney came to Sunnybrook to be part of the answer. He was driven by his experience at Stanford University as an early student in the pilot phase of the Biodesign Program, which was instrumental in building the booming medical device industry in the U.S.

Now, Medventions is becoming a blueprint for other medical centres. Sunnybrook recently received a $49 million investment from the federal government to help spearhead medical technology commercialization across Canada.

While the potential economic spinoffs are massive, even more important is the potential to solve health-care challenges and improve the lives of patients.

With a provisional patent filed earlier this year, RescuBeat is well on its way to commercialization. It’s also the first Medventions device accepted by MaRS Innovation, which provides seed funding and other supports to fledgling medical startups.

Although a work in progress, the device may one day not just save lives in the cath lab. It could be used anywhere cardiac arrest occurs.

“Our hope is to bring a device to market that will ultimately save many, many lives,” Jennett says.

About the author

Joel Schlesinger