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Concordia grad students contribute to an award-winning AI surgical innovation

Sara Amini and Paul Bugnon are members of the SymSolve multidisciplinary team that's working to improve breast reconstruction
July 23, 2019
By Howard Bokser

Marc Seaman (Microsoft Canada), Matthew Mannarino, Wemba Opota (Microsoft Canada), Paul Bugnon and Sara Amini at the Discover AI Challenge in Toronto, where the SymSolve team earned second place Marc Seaman (Microsoft Canada), Matthew Mannarino, Wemba Opota (Microsoft Canada), Paul Bugnon and Sara Amini at the Discover AI Challenge in Toronto, where the SymSolve team earned second place.

Women recovering from a mastectomy face emotional and physical trauma. To help overcome their challenges, a big step is for them to get as close as possible to their previous healthy state.

The artificial intelligence (AI) project of two Concordia graduate students seeks to help women who have had breast-removal surgery return to normalcy.

Sara Amini, a Master of Computer Science student at the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science, and Paul Bugnon, an MBA student at the John Molson School of Business (JMSB), are members of Team SymSolve. The group is developing an application that will enable plastic surgeons to recreate the natural shape in breast reconstruction for breast cancer patients by tapping into augmented reality (AR) technologies and AI data processing.

On June 26, the multidisciplinary team earned second place out of 687 participants at the Discover AI Challenge: Sustainable Life, sponsored by Microsoft Canada and Agorize. The 13-week national competition culminated with the six top teams making pitches to Microsoft managers in Toronto. SymSolve members each took home $2,000 in prize money.

A multidisciplinary approach to problem solving

The SymSolve members are graduates of the Surgical Innovation Program, a collaboration between Concordia, McGill University and École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS).

“The idea behind this program is to form teams from a variety of backgrounds — medical, management, computer science, mechanical engineering and bioengineering — so they can take a multidisciplinary approach and come up with innovative solutions to unmet needs in the health-care system,” Amini explains.

Prior to attending Concordia, she earned a BSc in computer software engineering from Shahid Beheshti University in Iran. Bugnon completed an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Polytechnique Montréal.

The other original SymSolve team members are Marie Laforêt, a bioengineering student at ÉTS, and three McGill experimental surgery students, Matthew Mannarino, Sadaf Baig and Arash Raad.

The Surgical Innovation Program assembled the teams based on their shared interests. Each one was assigned to a medical field — SymSolve’s was plastic surgery — and spent six sessions, one per week, at the McGill University Health Centre.

“We also had a medical supervisor who is a plastic surgeon, and we had the opportunity to observe some operations in his presence,” Amini says.

The SymSolve group eventually discovered an opportunity. Plastic surgeons doing breast symmetry and breast reconstruction must choose implants from hundreds of options. The surgeons use measurements and their experience, but the method is inexact.

After the implant operation is complete, Amini says, “Sometimes the patient sees the result and realizes that it is not as symmetrical or as natural as she wanted it, and they have to do a revision surgery.”

SymSolve’s application could greatly reduce the time and cost by using AR and AI to calculate the proper implant for the patient.

“We are trying to improve the process,” Amini adds.

As she points out, this is just one example of how AI will play a bigger role in surgery in the future. “When you add AI to the skills surgeons already have, that’s where you’re going to see the improvement.”

‘We decided to move forward and to commercialize the idea’

The one-year Surgical Innovation Program wrapped up in December, but the SymSolve team — now Amini, Bugnon, Laforêt and Mannarino — is progressing to the next stage of development. They gained a real boost from the Discover AI Challenge.

“With the feedback we received, we decided to move forward and to commercialize the whole idea,” Bugnon says. “Right now we’re still in the proof-of-concept or ideation phase. We still have a long way to go to actually get this to market, but that’s our plan.”

Bugnon explains that he enrolled at JMSB precisely to bring such concepts into reality.

“The reason I decided to do my MBA is that while working as an engineer I realized there’s sometimes a gap between that world and the business world,” he says.

“What interests me is to bridge that gap, to bring the technology developed by engineers closer to the market by finding the need for innovation and connecting it to the business need.”

Amini and Bugnon are looking forward to SymSolve’s next steps, which may include joining an accelerator program — such as Concordia’s District 3 Innovation Center — and participating in more startup competitions.

In the meantime, they will finish their graduate degrees. Both greatly appreciate the opportunities provided by Concordia for experiential learning — get your hands dirty — and interdisciplinarity — mix it up.

This summer Bugnon is interning at Montreal IT firm ESI Technologies as part of the CEO shadowing program. “Being part of CEO shadowing and the MBA International Case Competition is a plus,” he says. “It really adds value to your education.”

Amini also sees the benefits of collaborating with students from other fields. “By working with someone in bioengineering, for example, you could ask them if an idea is feasible or possible,” she says.

“It makes the whole experience amazing.”

Find out about how Concordia researchers are tapping into the growing field of artificial intelligence.


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