Scientists secure project funding

May 13, 2004, vol. 30 no. 2
By Stuart Colcleugh

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Two SFU scientists applied for three-year funding from the country's Collaborative Health Research Projects (CHRP) program this year and both got the nod for their individual projects.

Allison Kermode, an associate professor of plant cell and molecular biology, will receive $304,000 to develop a new treatment for the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU), in collaboration with UBC medical geneticist Lorne Clarke and UBC food scientist Christine Scaman.

Neurophysiologist Charles Krieger, an associate professor of kinesiology, will receive $162,000 to continue his research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease), in association with Fabio Rossi, UBC's Canada Research Chair in regenerative medicine.

Krieger and Rossi will use the funds to study mice that spontaneously develop an illness resembling ALS to determine why nerve cells are progressively lost as a result of the currently fatal disease. “We hope to discover what might be killing the motor neurons inside cells in mice and find ways to modify how these cells die,” says Krieger.

“Ultimately, there may be something we could give to ALS patients to prevent the death of the neurons affected.”

Kermode's team plans to develop a plant-derived dietary therapy for PKU. This chronic disease afflicts about nine infants per 100,000 births and is characterized by the body's inability to process the amino acid, phenylalanine. Newborn screening has become essential. If untreated, PKU can lead to severe mental retardation and behavioral problems. Currently used dietary regimes are difficult to follow, says Kermode. PKU sufferers must ingest a repugnant, semi-synthetic liquid formula and are unable to eat many common foods including meat, fish, milk, cheese, bread, cake and nuts. Kermode and her colleagues hope to develop a concentrated and easily ingestible form of a plant-derived enzyme called PAL (phenylalanine ammonia lyase) that would allow PKU individuals to safely eat a relatively normal diet.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) jointly fund the CHRP program. It supports collaborative research projects in the natural sciences and engineering leading to more effective health services and economic development in health-related areas.

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