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Breathing Fresh Air into Innovation


Breathing Fresh Air into Innovation


Breathing Fresh Air into Innovation

With decades of electrical nerve stimulation research under his belt, Andy Hoffer uses his expertise to create novel health technology solutions 

High mortality rates, diminished quality of life for surviving patients, and towering expense for the Canadian health care system: these are among the devastating side effects of prolonged use of mechanical ventilators. In fact, over 30 per cent of intensive care patients who are put on mechanical ventilation become dependent because the diaphragm quickly atrophies from lack of use.

SFU biomedical physiology researcher Andy Hoffer witnessed this first hand nine years ago when his mother was put on a ventilator during a severe bout with pneumonia. While sitting with her in the ICU, his years of research crystallized into an idea: to use pacing electrodes to rhythmically activate the diaphragm muscle and avoid 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 patients like them regain muscle strength and endurance“.

Similar to how a pacemaker regulates heartbeat, the electrodes would be safely placed via IV near the two phrenic nerves that control the diaphragm. 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. This 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 system trial in collaboration with Fraser Health. A team of respiratory technologists at Royal Columbian Hospital led by Dr. Steve Reynolds, program medical director and regional department head of critical care at Fraser Health, carried out pre-clinical studies. And 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 positive results are obtained part-way through this pivotal trial, the FDA could give early approval to begin marketing the product. “I’m very much looking forward to when this new therapy can benefit critically ill patients on mechanical ventilation by enabling them to breathe normally again,” says Hoffer.

But the Lungpacer wasn’t his first successful invention. Two decades ago, he developed a device that used nerve cuff technology to enable those with permanent motor disabilities to walk. The NeuroStep is implanted into the thigh where it senses nerve signals generated by skin pressure receptors. This activated the nerves that prompt paralyzed muscles to lift the foot and effectively enable those with neurological disabilities to walk again. Hoffer established and then helped direct Neurostream Technologies from 1997 to 2004, and it was later acquired by a Quebec company and then by Otto Bock HealthCare. 

Despite his impressive achievements, Hoffer remains humble, crediting expertise and support imparted by 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 the initial investment that allowed the company to hire an experienced management team, move into its own premises and then finally start flying solo.” 


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.

Q & A with Andy Hoffer

What motivates you as a researcher?  

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 important is collaboration?  

Striking the right strategic collaborations at the right times is critical.

SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged university.” How does your 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.

How is your research making an impact on lives?  

During research and development phases, I train students, employ recent graduates, and 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.