Burrell, Dr. Robert Edward

2010 Outstanding Leadership in Alberta Technology, Winner

Using Nanotechnology to save lives

Dr. Robert Burrell is considered by many among his peers to be a visionary. He saw the potential to apply nanotechnology to medicine and had the exceptional scientific skills to create a successful therapeutic product that saves lives and improves the quality of life for people worldwide.

Dr. Burrell’s discovery, Acticoat™, is the first therapeutic application of nanotechnology in the world.  It has revolutionized wound care and saved the lives and limbs of thousands of patients.

“Many people get to change the bottom line of companies; few get to change the outcomes of people’s lives,” says the Professor and Chair of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Alberta. “I’m lucky to be one of the latter.”

Dr. Burrell developed the nanostructured silver Acticoat bandage with privately owned Westaim Biomedical of Fort Saskatchewan and the University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. The dressings are used as an antimicrobial barrier over partial and full thickness wounds, including first and second degree burns, donor and recipient graft sites, pressure ulcers, venous ulcers and diabetic ulcers.

Saving Lives

Acticoat was instrumental in treating burn victims of the terrorist attack in Bali, Indonesia, and the Station Night Club fire in Rhode Island.

In 2002 Dr. Burrell was in Australia on a speaking tour to introduce doctors to Acticoat when terrorists bombed a Bali nightclub, causing hundreds of deaths and burn injuries. This was literally a test by fire for Dr. Burrell’s nanomedicine.

“I spent the next five days in the operating theatres in all of the major burn units in Australia,” Dr. Burrell remembers. “We applied Acticoat on young people whose bodies were 80- to 90 percent burnt. It worked very well.”

Dr. Burrell began the research that led to Acticoat in 1991, spurred by the historical use of silver as an anti-microbial. Through trial and error, he discovered that only through a nanocrystalline structure does the silver work as a potent anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory agent. The silver crystals used in Acticoat, as small as 20 atoms in size, speed healing and prevent scarring.

The dressing’s long-acting properties reduce the frequency with which bandages on burn victims need to be changed –  an extremely painful, disruptive process – from up to 10 times a day to as few as once every 3 to 7 days. Its unique properties also allow burn wounds to be examined without the problems of external film formation and inflammation.

Incredible Applications

 “No other burn dressing has the dual ability of Acticoat to kill bacteria and decrease inflammation. All other treatments pale in comparison,” Dr. Burrell says. He adds that Acticoat’s groundbreaking ability to heal wounds is not its only therapeutic application. Inhaled nanocrystaline silver shows promise in treating severe lung inflammation.

“It’s remarkable how Acticoat reduces inflammation in the lungs,” Dr. Burrell says. “We have 12 patients in the world who have used it in the aerosol form. All 12 were expected to die and all 12 are still alive.” Dr. Burrell’s research team at the University of Alberta, is also researching ocular applications for Acticoat.