Scientists register significant success in grants contest

March 24, 2005, vol. 32, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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Simon Fraser University scientists are registering a significant reading on the research radar of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

In six years, since the federal government's creation of CIHR to fund health-related research nationally at universities and teaching hospitals, SFU has gone from being a fledgling player to a significant grant recipient. In the latest CIHR operating grant competition, SFU's four grantees were among the highest scorers, and SFU achieved one of the highest success rates in this competition. SFU's was 36.4 per cent. The national average was 28.4 per cent. There were 479 grant recipients nationally.

The SFU recipients are Nick Harden, an associate professor in SFU's department of molecular biology and biochemistry (MBB); Michel Leroux, a professor in the same department; Dipankar Sen, a professor in MBB and chemistry, and Scott Lear, an assistant professor of kinesiology. They are the principal investigators in their research.

Member of Parliament Hedy Fry attended an event at SFU to honour the grant recipients. President Michael Stevenson and VP-research Mario Pinto hosted the event, which featured a presentation by Lear and tours of Sen's and Harden's labs.

Leroux, whose work has been published in the scientific journals Nature and Nature Genetics, is receiving $195,488 over two years to continue his investigation of the link between cilia function and obesity.

The cilium, a small finger-like projection found on the surface of most cells/tissues, performs a wide variety of motility and sensory functions important to the proper development and physiological function of most human organs. Disruptions in cilia function have been linked to several disorders including obesity.

A $62,566 grant over two years will enable Lear to fine tune his exploration of how excess body fat and its distribution can signal the onset of plaque build up in arteries. The condition, known as atherosclerosis, can lead to heart attacks and strokes. The project is part of a larger study by Lear of the extent to which excess body fat accumulates and is distributed in different ethnic groups. Lear's research is aimed at improving medical understanding of how obesity-related heart problems and health risks vary between different ethnic groups.

A three-year grant worth $313,404 will enable Sen to further probe the potential health benefits of designer DNA. Sen is one of only a handful of biochemists worldwide investigating how deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecules can be manipulated to design synthetic enzymes that are more efficient than naturally occurring ones. His research could eventually help doctors to destroy killer viruses and rehabilitate mutated cells on command.

Harden will use his three year grant of $278,817 to continue investigating how genetically engineered Rho proteins affect cell signaling and growth in fruit flies. Rho proteins are often involved in malignant cell development. Harden's research could lead to more targeted treatment of cancerous cells than chemotherapy and radiation.

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