A sense of invention

By Emily Leighton, MA'13

Aaron Fenster, PhD, has a sixth sense.

As an experienced and highly successful imaging researcher, he seems to instinctively know what inventions will make successful patent applications.  

This type of “eureka” moment is on full display as he explains one of his latest imaging projects for cervical cancer. “I can almost feel it, I know what we need to invent,” he says with vigour.

The stack of spiral bound books that sits on a top shelf in his office is proof of his abilities and ingenuity in the field of imaging technologies. These volumes contain the 51 patents he has filed to date, from projects developed by his lab. More are in development.

Fenster and his lab address gaps in diagnostic imaging technology for breast, cervical, liver, prostate and rectal cancers. The lab also works on imaging the brains of premature babies.

According to the Robarts researcher, the key to patent success is innovation. “The project has to be novel, it has to be the first in the world,” he says. “The bar is pretty high to prove no one else has thought of it.”

But he says the crux of patent development is having a clinical problem to address and solve. This is where physician collaborators play an important role, passing along issues they come across in clinical practice.

Combining mechanical engineering, software development and imaging systems expertise, Fenster’s lab works to solve these problems. Prototypes are built out of cardboard and spare parts. Physicians evaluate these early models, which are then reassessed and redeveloped until a final, sophisticated version is created.

Patents are filed fairly early in the process. “Getting it all working for clinical application is a bigger challenge,” Fenster explains.

For the Robarts scientist, patent applications and approvals are business as usual. But he is thrilled every time a student goes through the process with him. “It’s fantastic for my students,” he says. “It’s very rewarding and helps them develop a confidence in their own ability to innovate.”

But not every project warrants a patent application. It is an expensive process – to file a Canada-U.S. patent is approximately $35,000 and to file internationally can cost upwards of $100,000.

Assessing feasibility and originality starts right at the beginning of the process. “We try to tackle problems with a significant impact on health care, so when we invent something it’s not just sitting on the shelf,” says Fenster.

His proudest collection of patents to date are related to electro-mechanical mechanisms used to manipulate ultrasound transducers. The first patent in this particular cluster was filed in 1995, and the most recent in 2014. More than five companies have licensed the technology for sale. "This group of patents have been the basis of a variety of diagnostic and image-guided therapy applications ranging from prostate cancer to imaging neonatal brains," Fenster explains. "It demonstrates the diversity of our work."

The imaging scientist is certainly living a childhood dream realized as Director of the Imaging Group at Robarts. “People dream of this as a kid, thinking about when they grow up and telling everyone that they want to be an inventor,” he says with a smile. “And here I am.”