Dr. Warren Finlay

2014 Winner: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science

Developing Inhaled Pharmaceutical Aerosols

For Dr. Warren Finlay, researching inhaled pharmaceutical aerosols is the perfect field of study. His research stimulates his curiosity while pairing it with the opportunity to help people.

“I have and always have had a very curious mind,” says Finlay. It was this need to find out how things work that led him to become an academic.

“We’re discovering knowledge that nobody has ever known before,” he says. “You come into the lab one day and finally get to the bottom of something that nobody understood before. That’s pretty cool.”

Finlay’s search for answers coupled with his belief in helping to improve people’s lives has led him to become the world’s most eminent engineering researcher in the field of inhaled pharmaceutical aerosols. These are drugs inhaled into the lungs to treat diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cystic fibrosis.

Changing Course

Biomedicine was not always on Finlay’s radar. As an undergraduate at the University of Alberta, Finlay was focusing on engineering physics and electrical engineering. He then took his masters degree in electrical engineering with a focus on plasma physics before pursuing his PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford University. Finlay was hired at the University of Alberta directly out of his PhD program in 1987. His switch from electrical to mechanical engineering came from a desire to work with things that he could see.

“I wanted to be involved with things you could get your hands on. It’s a little hard to get your hands on electrons.”

Although he was working in mechanical engineering he had always had an interest in biomedicine where he could make a real difference in people’s lives. “I was hoping to make more of a humanitarian contribution with my career,” Finlay says.

A Chance Encounter

In a time before automated answering machines, Finlay’s opportunity to help people came in the form of hand written phone messages left in his mailbox asking about asthma. Initially he thought these were wrong numbers from the hospital, but after the third message, he called back and spoke with Dr. Peter Zuberbuhler, a pediatric pulmonologist.

Zuberbuhler was concerned they were using inhalers without actually understanding how they worked. He believed there was an opportunity to improve them, which led to his call to Finlay.

“Peter figured, ‘If you wanted something done, get an engineer to do it,’” Finlay says.

Although it was pretty far from Finlay’s field of research, he and his PhD student studied the literature and went to the hospital to see the inhalers in action.

“We looked at these funny aerosol devices they were using at the hospital and got a basic understanding of how they worked and decided, looking at the literature, there probably is something we can do here.”

Definitive Contributions

Since then, Finlay has conducted extensive and definitive research into inhaled pharmaceutical aerosols. He considers his biggest accomplishment to be his research into the fundamental understanding of aerosol behaviour in the lungs and respiratory tract. Through this improved understanding of aerosol mechanics, Finlay has been able to improve the methods and tools of inhaler development before companies spend millions of dollars to move the devices to clinical trials.

“There are probably 500 million inhalers sold worldwide every year, and those inhalers are designed and developed with our methods.”

Finlay’s comprehensive research has revolutionized inhaler design and allowed for dramatically improved drug delivery. Through his creative and fundamental work, he has solved practical problems that have bettered the lives of thousands of individuals worldwide.

Looking Forward

Now Finlay is looking into new ways to treat cancers and neurodegenerative diseases with aerosols. His laboratory’s work is some of the most promising work ever published in the fight against lung cancer and they are also looking at new ways to use aerosols to get drugs to the brain to treat brain cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s clear that Finlay’s research will continue to evolve as he works tirelessly to expand the knowledge base and use these groundbreaking discoveries to benefit the lives of people across the globe.