July 31, 2015

July 2015: University of Calgary research funding from CFI

Eight projects receive infrastructure support through the John R. Evans Leaders Fund
Vedran Lovic studies the  the psychology and neurobiology of addiction.

Vedran Lovic studies the the psychology and neurobiology of addiction.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Eight research projects based at the University of Calgary will receive funding of nearly $1.5 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF). The funding was announced July 29, 2015. JELF funds are awarded to acquire infrastructure to undertake cutting-edge research which can help institutions attract and retain internationally leading researchers working in areas with demonstrated or potential excellence.

Here's a summary of the work of seven researchers. 

Behavioural neuroscientist Vedran Lovic advances our understanding of addiction

We know that children who experience trauma are more liable to grow up to become addicts. And we know that most people who try different drugs — drinks with friends or painkillers after surgery — walk away while a small minority will become addicted. Vedran Lovic wants to find out why. 

The assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts is studying the psychology and neurobiology of addiction. With nearly $100,000 in JELF funding, Lovic will acquire the equipment he needs to look for the mechanism in the brain that makes some people more prone to addiction.

“We know that early life adversity is correlated with liability for drug addiction in adulthood,” he says. “But these are just correlations from human studies. We don’t know how the brain is changed early on in life to promote addiction.”

Lovic’s multidisciplinary behavioural and neuroscientific “molecules-to-behaviour” research program will parse out the role different neural and psychological factors play in the development of addiction.  

“The majority of people have moved on from believing that addiction is a sort of moral failing,” he says. “We know that for some reason our brains are different. Some individuals might be able to sample many different drugs and not get addicted to them, while others can get hooked because their brains respond differently.”

Using the new infrastructure — behavioural testing equipment, fast-scan cyclic voltammetry, lasers, a microscope and histology-related equipment — along with state-of-the-art neuroscience techniques, Lovic can measure dopamine levels in the brain at millisecond intervals during certain activities. That means he can see what’s happening in the brain at the molecular level, in neural circuits while also observing behavior.

The research could help identify who is at risk for addiction, information that could lead to effective prevention strategies and pharmacological therapies. Current treatments are “abysmal,” says Lovic. Addicts have a more than 90 per cent chance of relapsing. In the United States, drug overdoses are a leading cause of death in young people.

“The annual costs in Canada now of substance abuse and addiction are estimated at $40 billion and in the U.S. it’s $550 billion,” says Lovic. “There is no number that you can put on the emotional suffering. I would really like to find out what parameters are relevant and then start working on prevention and the treatment side of things.” 

Neuroscientist Marina Martinez uses CFI award to understand spinal cord injury and treatment

Marina Martinez studies the mechanisms supporting functional recovery when the spinal cord is damaged. The majority of the 86,000 Canadians who suffer spinal injuries every year have incomplete injuries, leaving intact some neural circuits and pathways that are important for motor skills. Martinez is working to help these patients recover more fully.

A researcher with the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) and the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy at the Cumming School of Medicine, Martinez has been awarded nearly $250,000 from JELF to be used for infrastructure and equipment to help her conduct her research.

Martinez will use the CFI-funded equipment to examine the motor cortex — the part of the brain responsible for the execution of voluntary motor acts. The contribution of this brain area to the recovery of walking is not well understood. 

Her experiments will combine behavioural, electrophysiological and neuroanatomical techniques, with the use of animal models of spinal cord injury, to learn more about the fundamental mechanisms supporting motor recovery. She will also use rehabilitation and brain stimulation protocols to harness these mechanisms and facilitate recovery of motor abilities.  

Martinez has been collaborating with clinicians and scientists across the country in her work. “A strong dialogue between scientists and clinicians is essential for bridging the gap from bench to clinic,” says Martinez. “We all work toward a single goal: improving the quality of life of patients who suffer from debilitating injuries of the spinal cord and nervous system. These injuries can severely affect their quality of life and ability to return to independent living.”

Her earlier work shows that rehabilitation protocols can powerfully facilitate recovery of sensorimotor abilities in animal models. She believes that “the use of relevant animal models is necessary for unravelling the fundamentals of the neural basis of recovery and for testing strategies that could benefit patients.”

Martinez is a member of the Spinal Cord/Nerve Injury and Pain NeuroTeam at the HBI. Brain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research priorities guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals.

Guillaume Millet and Juan Murias explore how cardio and muscular physiology contribute to fatigue 

Most of us don’t think twice about going to work, shopping, or walking up a flight of stairs. But for cancer patients and the elderly suffering from fatigue, these daily tasks can become grueling marathons. Kinesiology researchers Guillaume Millet and Juan Murias are studying the neuromuscular and cardiovascular responses of cancer patients and the elderly to physical activity so they can better understand their fatigue and suggest interventions to improve their conditions. 

Millet and Murias were awarded $84,000 to seek a better understanding of fatigue, a complex condition that can affect individuals very differently. 

“Tell me who you are, and what you’re doing, and then I might be able to start to give you an answer about what is causing your fatigue,” says Millet. “Are you an athlete running a marathon or a cancer patient walking in your neighborhood? Are you exercising at high altitude? What gender are you?”

Millet and Murias are combining their expertise to examine many different aspects of fatigue. Millet studies the neuromuscular responses to physical activity to identify impacts on brain function which can limit performance in active muscle. Murias focuses on the cardiovascular limitations associated with cancer and aging that lead to poor oxygenation of muscles.  Millet says that their combined expertise will give them a more complete picture of how both the elderly and cancer patients experience fatigue.

So far, research has shown that exercise-training interventions can help diminish or even eliminate symptoms of fatigue. The researchers are hoping their investigations will lead to a better understanding of the type and duration of exercise that produces the best results for reducing fatigue in cancer patients and in aging populations. “We like to say that exercise is medicine,” says Millet. “But if exercise is medicine, we need to do a better job of prescribing the right dose, and use our expertise to get the best results for these populations in the shortest amount of time.”

Millet and Murias hope their research will lead to seniors being able to live independently for longer, reduce the burden on public health by improving cardiovascular health, and help cancer patients get back to living fuller lives.

Assistant chemistry professor Darren Derksen leads a team at the University of Calgary that uses innovation to develop promising new drug leads.

Darren Derksen leads a team that uses innovation to develop promising new drug leads.

Kathryn Schneider, Carolyn Emery and Willem Meeuwisse find more effective concussion treatments

We typically think of a concussion as a brain injury created by trauma. However, kinesiology researcher Kathryn Schneider says that a concussion is a very complex condition that involves more than just our brains. The brain is like an onboard computer. It constantly processes information from a variety of sensory inputs including the eyes, inner ears, muscles, ligaments and joints, and interprets all that information to keep the body balanced and to help it move. 

“Normally all the systems give the brain very consistent information,” says Schneider, who is also a physiotherapist. “But if there’s a problem with the input coming from any one of those systems, or a problem with how the brain is interpreting any input from those systems, then individuals might feel dizzy or have difficulty with balance.” 

In a recent study, Schneider showed that a group receiving her physiotherapy protocol treating the neck and balance systems, were more likely to be cleared within an eight-week time period, compared to individuals treated with the usual prescription of rest and gradual return to activity.  

“The neck gives the brain a lot of information about where you are in space,” says Schneider. “There are also a lot of muscles that can be injured by trauma.” 

About 300,000 North Americans suffer from a sport-related concussion each year and mounting evidence indicates these can have long-term health consequences. This means huge potential for the research of Schneider and her colleagues: Carolyn Emery, a leading sports injury researcher and Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Professorship in Paediatric Rehabilitation; and sports medicine physician Dr. Willem Meeuwisse, who are all based at the University of Calgary’s Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre. 

“Our goal is to decrease the public health burden of concussion, especially since concussion is such a common condition occurring in youth, adolescence and young adults,” says Schneider. 

Schneider says the $191,000 the team has been awarded by JELF will provide necessary infrastructure to improve the evaluation the cervical spine as well as the balance and sensory systems of the body.  

Brain and Mental Health is a research priority at the university and Schneider says her team’s research will help advance the overall work being done in this area. “We’re really fortunate at the University of Calgary that we have a wonderful team of researchers working together on a number of different projects to help us better understand the effects of concussion in terms of risk as well as recovery.” 

Chemistry researcher Darren Derksen develops more effective drug therapies 

It’s easy to take for granted the availability of affordable and effective drug therapies for everything from managing pain to treating invasive diseases. But behind the scenes, the chemistry required to synthesize those compounds on an industrial scale and for a manageable cost is complex and often requires a high degree of innovation.

Darren Derksen, assistant professor and Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Junior Chair in Medicinal Chemistry, leads a team that uses innovation to develop promising new drug leads. He’s been awarded nearly $275,000 in JELF funding to acquire the instrumentation and equipment he needs to expand and explore new drug therapy research. 

“The new instrumentation will allow rapid purification and characterization of difficult mixtures that will help us tackle more complex research questions,” says Derksen.

Just how complex are those questions? Among other health and science aims, Derksen’s lab is working on cancer therapies that can reach across the blood-brain barrier to tackle brain tumours. One strategy is to tag drugs onto carrier molecules — a Trojan Horse of sorts — that can essentially "open the gates" to allow a compound and its hidden drug through to the brain to reach the targeted tumour.

They are also researching anti-inflammatory compounds with applications in pain management and other conditions. Underlying all the scientific exploration is the need to create these novel therapeutics using processes that are not only completely safe but also highly efficient, minimizing the steps involved. 

“In the synthesis of an organic molecule, every step requires resources and time,” says Derksen. “Extrapolating to an industrial scale, removing steps in a chemical synthesis can be the difference between a viable commercial process and the end of research on a promising compound.”

One of the most innovative and novel aspects of Derksen’s research is the close integration with researchers in health and in industry. His research primarily involves the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) and the Southern Alberta Cancer Research Institute (SACRI), as well as collaborators in the Cumming School of Medicine and across the university. 

“Modern medicinal chemistry research is multidisciplinary and requires expertise in biological assays, computational modelling, high-throughput screening, and many more unique resources that have been established across campus,” says Derksen. 

Collaborators in industry then ensure new strategies he develops are useful in real world treatments. “Fundamental research helps us identify promising compounds; industry then has the resources to take those lead compounds and develop an actual drug.”

Oury Monchi researches treatments to improve lives of people with Parkinson’s 

More than 100,000 people in Canada live with Parkinson’s disease — a chronic degenerative disorder of the central nervous system for which there is no cure. Clinical neuroscientist Oury Monchi is breaking new ground with his patient-focused investigation of new treatments to improve quality of life of those living with the disease. 

Parkinson’s disease is known for its debilitating motor symptoms including tremors, rigidity and slow movement. However, patients with the disease can also exhibit cognitive deficits, as well as neuropsychiatric conditions, including depression and anxiety. The occurrence of dementia in people with Parkinson’s is much higher than in the general population. 

“The whole spectrum of Parkinson’s disease symptomology needs to be catered for if we are to significantly improve the quality of life for patients,” says Monchi. 

The professor in the Cumming School of Medicine’s departments of clinical neurosciences and radiology is a pioneer in using different neuroimaging techniques to study the origins and evolution of cognitive deficits in Parkinson's disease, with the ultimate goal of early prediction of dementia in the disease.

Monchi will further his innovative research on non-motor deficits in the disease thanks to $250,000 in JELF support. “The infrastructure funded by the CFI will greatly help to advance our understanding of different symptoms and test new treatments,” says Monchi, who joined the HBI last year as the Tourmaline Oil Chair in Parkinson’s Disease.

This funding will be invested in infrastructure for his state-of the-art laboratory at the HBI’s newly established Ron and Rene Ward Centre for Healthy Brain Aging Research. 

Monchi is combining different “neurotechnologies” and novel techniques in multi-faceted studies that promise to enhance our understanding of cognitive dysfunction in Parkinson’s disease. He is employing brain imaging techniques, such as anatomical and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), clinical testing and genotyping to identify biomarkers that can predict the occurrence of dementia. He is also investigating the effect of different treatments on non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease through methods including transcranial magnetic stimulation, perceptual-cognitive training and physical training such as dance therapy. 

This research aims to provide a much broader understanding of Parkinson’s disease. It also has the potential to develop new treatments that will improve intellectual functioning and mental health, as well as slow down the decline in motor symptoms for people with Parkinson’s disease.

Equipping Nathan Peters' first-of-its-kind lab in Canada to develop vaccine for parasitic disease

Parasitic infectious diseases are a major cause of sickness and death in Canada and the world, but doctors have yet to develop effective vaccines to treat them.

Dr. Nathan Peters, a recognized leader in the study of the chronic parasitic disease, Leishmaniasis, is working to change that. He was recently recruited to the Cumming School of Medicine with a cross appointment to the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. His research focuses on understanding the immune response to vector transmitted pathogens. Specifically, how the inflammatory response to an insect bite in the skin alters the expression of adaptive immunity, including vaccine-induced immunity, against a pathogen that is using the insect as a vector of transmission.

Leishmaniasis occurs when a sand fly bites an individual in search of a blood meal, much like a mosquito. During feeding, parasites living in the gut of an infected sand fly are deposited into the skin where they invade and live inside the very cells of the immune system that are supposed to kill them.

“What is unknown is why some people develop effective immunity to parasites such as Leishmania, leading to life-long protection against re-infection, yet we cannot develop a vaccine that replicates this protective response” says Peters. “My research program will focus on understanding the missing links between natural protective immunity and vaccine-induced immunity in order to develop the first ever effective vaccine against a parasitic disease.”

With the $275,000 JELF award, Peters will build a sand fly insectary. “The course of disease is significantly different when the sand fly transmits the parasite versus using a needle; therefore, you really need to use sand flies to understand how the parasite operates” says Peters.

This will be the first lab in Canada and one of the only a few in the world that employs the actual insect vector to initiate disease. “This information is critical for many vector transmitted diseases such as malaria and Lyme disease,” adds Peters.

There are between one million and two million new cases of Leishmaniasis every year. An estimated 12 million people are infected worldwide, and approximately 20,000-50,000 people die due to visceral Leishmaniasis every year, says Peters. “This funding will significantly enhance Canada’s knowledge base and benefit Canadians through improved understanding, treatment and vaccination against infectious diseases.”