U of M engineering student wins first place at Sunnybrook Prize competition

Pre-diagnostic screening test for obstructive sleep apnea developed

University of Manitoba engineering student Cameron MacGregor is the winner of the third annual Sunnybrook Prize competition for internship research in biomedical engineering, held at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto. His project on the development of an efficient and inexpensive diagnostic screening technique for obstructive sleep apnea earned him first place in the competition, as well as a $10,000 cash prize.

MacGregor was among five undergraduate finalists from across Canada who presented research at the Sunnybrook Prize competition. The other projects focused on topics ranging from cardiac to cancer research.

Studying electrical engineering with an interdisciplinary application in biomedical technology, MacGregor is expecting to graduate by June 2014. The young scientist has already made many great strides in his career.

In addition to his victory at the SRI, MacGregor has presented research at three conferences. He received third place in the Innovative Design category at the Western Engineering Competition in Edmonton.

He also presented at the Canadian Student Health Research Forum Manitoba Poster Competition, where he received the Dean of Graduate Studies Poster Award, as well as the 2012 University of Manitoba Undergraduate Research Poster Competition.

In addition to his achievements in research, MacGregor has also received multiple scholarships and awards for his outstanding academic achievements, including being listed on the faculty of engineering Dean’s Honour List for six consecutive years. He won the University of Manitoba Emerging Leader Aaward in 2013.

The origin story for MacGregor’s success at the Sunnybrook Prize competition is one filled with serendipity. Only a year ago, he was searching graduate programs at other universities. “I happened upon the Sunnybrook Prize competition in the results of a Google search,” said MacGregor in an interview with the Manitoban.

After a one-year hiatus from his academic studies to work in the lab of his supervisor, Zahra Moussavi, MacGregor decided to take the opportunity and apply to the competition.

“I was prompted to apply just to see how far I could take my research. I’m always open to exposing myself to new opportunities and situations, and I thought I had a reasonable chance of getting selected as a finalist, so I thought, ‘why not?'”

Selection criteria for the competition included two reference letters describing the applicant’s research potential, and a two-page summary of the research. The final round involved a 10-minute presentation with five minutes of questions.

“Three of the five finalists were from Ontario universities, and had conducted their research projects at either Harvard University or in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences Technology program in Boston during co-op work terms, so this was no doubt very tough competition,” said MacGregor.

The project, he later explained in an interview with CBC Manitoba Information Radio, was inherited from a master’s student of the same lab he performed his research in. When MacGregor began, some of the basic research in developing the technology had already been completed. MacGregor developed a new classification technique, increasing the accuracy of the pre-screening process for individuals who may have sleep apnea.

Diagnosing obstructive sleep apnea is currently time-consuming and costly. The process involves an overnight polysomnogram at a lab. Polysomnography, commonly used to diagnose sleep disorders, gathers information on patients by recording their brain waves, as well as monitoring blood oxygen levels, breathing, heart rate, and eye and leg movement. The process takes place while the patient is asleep.

“Basically a person has to go to a sleep lab overnight at a hospital and have all this crazy equipment hooked up to them – it’s a very uncomfortable, expensive process,” said MacGregor in his interview with CBC Radio. The procedure costs $500 per person. In addition to the cost, there is a long waiting list for this test to be administered: one to three years.

It is estimated that only about 10 per cent of the people afflicted with the condition are actually diagnosed.

The hope is that this newly developed pre-screening diagnostic technology will reduce the cost of diagnosing individuals with sleep apnea, while cutting down the wait list for those who really need a polysomnogram.

MacGregor’s technique examines the breathing of individuals who may have sleep apnea. People afflicted with the disorder tend to have narrower upper airways that are collapsed, even when they are not asleep. This changes the sound of their breathing.

“It’s basically like a musical instrument,” said MacGregor.

MacGregor’s technique involves recording and examining patients’ breathing sounds. The information collected can then be used to determine if the individual has a narrower airway or not. Over 100 different sound features, such as pitch, are examined and analyzed in the pre-diagnostic process. What’s more, this test can be done while the person is awake, and with little complication.

The award for the Sunnybrook Prize competition was established in 2011 to acknowledge and support undergraduate scientists across Canada in their final two years of study. Funding for the award was established by royalties generated from technology developed at the Sunnybrook Research Institute.

With the prize money, MacGregor intends to further his education by enrolling in a master’s program in biomedical engineering at the U of M. This novel program was established by MacGregor’s supervisor, and MacGregor will be one of the first students to join.

If everything goes as planned, MacGregor is seriously considering enrolling in a PhD program for sleep apnea research.