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Home-grown technology has potential to change diabetes care

Toronto, January 30, 2020

By St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation

Dr. Karen Cross
Dr. Karen Cross

When Dr. Karen Cross’s grandfather began to have foot problems from diabetes, her phone calls with family back in Newfoundland convinced her that something needed to change.

“I’m one of the experts in wounds in Canada,” says Dr. Cross, “But I could only tell my mom what to tell the doctor. I could not help my own family”

A plastic surgeon, scientist at the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science, and start-up Co-Founder and CEO, Dr. Cross is now building the first-ever foot screening device for those with diabetes.

Nearly one in 10 Canadians lives with the disease, and foot health is a major concern — especially for seniors and people with other risk factors. In extreme cases, poor foot health can lead to amputation.

Dr. Cross says she knew she wanted to be a doctor from an early age; she even dressed up as one to attend Grade 2 on Halloween. In her traditionally minded community, she says, everyone thought she was a nurse — but they were quickly corrected.

“Even as a little girl, I made it very clear that those stereotypes weren’t going to apply to me,” she said.

Dr. Cross overcame extreme shyness to emerge as valedictorian of her middle-school class, following that with a medical degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador and a competitive plastic surgery residency at the University of Toronto. She was one of the first plastic surgery residents to complete a Ph.D. through the university’s Surgeon Scientist program.

Yet when it came to getting her grandfather the best possible care, it wasn’t clear how she could help from halfway across the country.

“It wasn’t until it was personal that I realized I had to change my approach as a doctor, as a researcher,” she said. “The problem is, without a doctor, how do you know what’s wrong with your feet? It took me 20 years to figure it out. We needed to get my experience as a physician into people’s hands.”

As a surgeon-scientist, Dr. Cross knew how to solve the problem. She focused on different kinds of light which, when shined through the body and captured with special cameras, can detect abnormalities.

What started as a research idea became a reality thanks to St. Michael’s Angels Den, which awards funding to projects chosen by a panel of jurists, the public and celebrity judges. In 2016, Dr. Cross’s MIMOSA project received top prize, and she spun it off into a start-up.

“Angels Den was a real launchpad for us,” she said. “Our device has the potential to transform diabetic care globally.”

Dr. Cross and her team used the Angels Den money to build a prototype and raise a round of funding. Last year, the device obtained U.S. FDA 510(k) clearance. Dr. Cross’ goal is to get MIMOSA devices to health-care professionals for screenings in environments such as hospitals and nursing homes, and Dr. Cross said that eventually patients will be able to use the device in their own homes.

Her grandfather has since lost his leg to diabetes, and Dr. Cross said she’s motivated by the potential for her research to help others and to care for his other leg.

“We can directly see how it impacts patient care,” she said. “That’s what gives me the passion to push this forward.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in more than 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

About Unity Health Toronto

Unity Health Toronto, comprised of Providence Healthcare, St. Joseph’s Health Centre and St. Michael’s Hospital, works to advance the health of everyone in our urban communities and beyond. Our health network serves patients, residents and clients across the full spectrum of care, spanning primary care, secondary community care, tertiary and quaternary care services to post-acute through rehabilitation, palliative care and long-term care, while investing in world-class research and education. For more information, visit www.unityhealth.to.


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