Breathing fresh air into medical innovation

Towering expense for the Canadian health care system, high mortality rates, and loss of quality of life for surviving patients: these are among the devastating side effects of prolonged use of mechanical ventilators. Over 30 per cent of intensive care patients put on mechanical ventilation become dependent because the diaphragm quickly atrophies from lack of use.

SFU biomedical physiology researcher Andy Hoffer witnessed this firsthand nine years ago when his mother was put on a ventilator during a severe bout with pneumonia. It was while sitting with his mom in the ICU that his years of research crystallized into an idea: to use pacing electrodes to rhythmically activate the diaphragm muscle, thus avoiding the muscle atrophy caused by traditional ventilators. “For weeks I watched my mother and other patients struggle to wean from the ventilator,” says Hoffer. “I realized that electrical “pacing” could help regain the greatly diminished muscle strength and endurance“.

Similar to how a pacemaker regulates heartbeat, the electrodes could be simply and safely placed via an IV near the two phrenic nerves that control the diaphragm to regulate breathing. Not only could such a technology enable faster patient recovery and lower hospitalization costs, but it would also free up the scarce ventilators for use during flu outbreaks.

Hoffer ran with the idea, founding Lungpacer Medical Inc. in 2009 to develop and commercialize his invention: the Lungpacer Diaphragm Pacing Therapy (DPT) system. The university spinoff has attracted numerous industry awards and government grants, as well as over 20 key patents. In 2013, a crucial grant from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) funded a trial of the system in collaboration with Fraser Health. A team of respiratory technologists at Royal Columbian Hospital were led by Dr. Steve Reynolds, program medical director and regional department head of critical care at Fraser Health, to carry out pre-clinical studies. In 2015 another CIHR grant helped to fund the First-in-Human feasibility trials. 

Since May of 2016, under a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) program created to facilitate faster patient access to breakthrough lifesaving technologies, the Lungpacer “Rescue” DPT is being fast-tracked toward US pilot clinical trials, moving the device ever closer to commercialization. If clear positive results are obtained part-way through the pivotal trial, the FDA could give early approval to begin marketing the product. “I’m very much looking forward to when this new therapy will benefit critically-ill patients on mechanical ventilation by enabling them to breathe normally again,” he says.



The Lungpacer wasn’t Hoffer’s first successful invention. Two decades ago, he developed a device that used nerve-cuff technology to enable people with permanent motor disabilities to walk. Called the NeuroStep, the device was implanted in the thigh and sensed nerve signals generated by skin pressure receptors. This activated the nerves that cause paralyzed muscles to lift the foot which enabled those with neurological disabilities to walk again. Hoffer established and then helped direct Neurostream Technologies from 1997 to 2004 to commercialize the technology. 

Despite his impressive achievements, Hoffer remains humble, crediting expertise and support from the SFU Innovation Office (IO) and the SFU Innovates VentureLabs® program for guiding Lungpacer Inc.’s success. “The IO provided critical technology assessment, market research and intellectual property services, and assisted with prototype development,” he says. “Their help was essential to us obtaining key grants and initial investment that allowed the company to hire an experienced management team, move to its own premises and start flying solo in the past two years.” 

Q & A with Dr. Andy Hoffer

Dr. Andy Hoffer is the founder and CSO of Lungpacer Medical Inc. and the original inventor of Lungpacer’s transvascular nerve stimulation electrode. He has a Ph.D. in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University, over 40 granted patents, and 18 years of experience in medical device development and commercialization in collaboration with the SFU Innovation Office. In 1997, he was also founder and CSO of Neurostream Technologies Inc. in 1997-2004 (acquired in 2013 by Ottobock) and a co-founder of Bionic Power Inc. in 2007.

If you could sum up the value of university research/innovation in one word, what would it be?


What motivates you as a researcher/innovator? 

The thrill of discovery, the surprise and stimulation that comes from unexpected new findings, and the unique satisfaction of seeing an idea evolve into a product.

How is your research making an impact on lives? 

During the research and development phases I train students and employ recent graduates, as well as engage colleagues in joint efforts. And once a new medical product and therapy is approved for use we hope to save lives, improve health outcomes, reduce medical care costs and ultimately set a new standard of care for critically ill patients.

How important is collaboration in advancing research/innovation? 

Striking the right strategic collaborations at the right times are critically important.

SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement? 

From the nearly daily participation from dedicated SFU Innovation Office staff during Lungpacer's formative years as an SFU start-up company.