Robert Burrell wins again, for revolutionary wound treatment

Robert Burrell has been awarded the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Cross for his achievements in wound care. Burrell invented Acticoat, a revolutionary new dressing that has saved countless lives and limbs.

(Edmonton) Robert Burrell, professor and chair in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Alberta, travelled to Australia in 2002 to deliver presentations about a product he had developed. It used nanocrystalline silver technology as an antimicrobial to treat burns and other wounds. He says he felt lucky to have brought his research that far.

Before that, in the 1980s, he might have been discouraged by others who, on listening to him describe his research, told him it was impossible. “In those days I don’t think we really used the word ‘nanotech,’” he says. “But I knew I was doing something completely different.” Early product use in the 1990s revealed that not only was the technology a great antimicrobial, but it had strong anti-inflammatory properties too. He called the product—sheets of bluish papery film, coated with the engineered silver—Acticoat, and it’s what brought him to Australia.

But that day in 2002 was notable down under for far more than Burrell’s arrival. Terrorists detonated a series of bombs in Bali, a holiday hotspot for Australians. Two hundred people died, and hundreds more were injured, many with serious burns. The local hospital was swamped and many burn patients were flown to Australia. Burrell hit the ground running; Australian doctors were about to get a crash course in the use of Acticoat.

“One patient had burns to more than 90 per cent of her body,” Burrell recalls. Doctors dressed her wounds—along with those of many patients—with Acticoat. “The patient healed without once suffering an infection or needing a graft,” he says. “That was unheard of in a case of such extensive burns.”

Already the recipient of many awards, yesterday Burrell added another to his collection. He was awarded the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Cross in recognition of his development and use of Acticoat, which has saved lives and limbs, sped healing and eased scarring, making post-burn care more manageable.

“Some people can touch the bottom line of companies, but few get to change the outcomes of people’s lives,” Burrell says. “I feel very fortunate.”

The trophy shelf is groaning

The Governor General’s Meritorious Service Cross is not Robert Burrell’s first award for the nanotech wound dressing he created. Here are some of his other recognitions:

  • BioAlberta Award for Scientific Achievement and Innovation, 2006
  • MEDEC Award for Medical Achievement, 2006
  • World Union of Healing Societies’ Lifetime Achievement Award (for contributions to wound healing around the world), 2008
  • Manning Innovation Award, 2009
  • ASM Engineering Materials Achievement Award, 2009
  • ASTech Awards Outstanding Leadership in Alberta Technology, 2010
  • Jonas Salk Award, 2010 (for lifetime achievement, presented annually to a Canadian scientist, physician or researcher who has made a new and outstanding contribution to prevent, alleviate or eliminate a physical disability)