New grants support health research

September 22, 2005, vol. 34, no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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A new round of funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) will support the development of emergent, multi-disciplinary research that is putting Simon Fraser University on the map in health sciences research. The funding comes from the CFI's New Opportunities Fund.

SFU's most recent CFI recipients are pioneering research that could one day enable doctors to accurately diagnose and cure complex and life threatening diseases using molecular and mathematical analysis.

Mario Liotti, Nancy Forde, Melanie O'Neill, Ghassan Hamarneh and Faisal Beg, recent appointees at SFU, are collectively receiving $570,000.

Liotti, a neurologist, a cognitive neuroscientist and an associate professor of psychology, will use his $140,000 award to purchase equipment for a unique facility in Canada, and one of a few worldwide. Liotti's laboratory of affective and developmental neuroscience will help researchers understand the cognitive and neurological markers of mental illnesses such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism.

Liotti is an expert in integrating neurophysiological measures, neuroimaging and brain electrophysiology analysis to understand how emotions and psychological development affect cognitive function. Liotti's CFI funding will help him install five networked high-powered computer workstations in his lab to analyse and integrate data on brain and neurophysiological activity.

Forde, an assistant professor of physics, specializing in molecular biophysics, will use her $150,000 to build an instrument previously unavailable in Canada. Forde will pioneer the adaptation of multi-trap optical tweezers to probe biological systems at the molecular level. The tweezers will enable Forde to use the optical force of highly focused laser light to study the stability and elasticity of collagen molecules.

“This research has broad implications to human health and medicine,” notes Forde. “The structural stability of collagen plays a key role in maintaining healthy tissues. Breakdown in its stability, arising from genetic mutations or other factors, can lead to a wide range of connective tissue diseases.”

Forde's CFI grant will also support the creation of an optical trapping laboratory for biomolecular manipulation.

Hamarneh is an assistant professor in the school of computing science, while Beg is an assistant professor in the school of engineering science. They will use their $130,000 to acquire computational, storage and visualization infrastructure for their emerging medical image analysis laboratory. The lab is dedicated to enhancing modern medical imaging technology by developing mathematical models to describe, detect and predict normal and abnormal human anatomical structures.

“In addition to the promise of early detection,” says Beg, “we aim to develop sophisticated quantitative metrics to track the progression of anatomical shape changes from psychiatric and cardiac diseases over time.”

O'Neill is one of a few scientists worldwide researching how humans use light to synchronize their metabolic and behavioural patterns, or circadian rhythm, with the outside world. The assistant professor of chemistry will use her $150,000 to construct a laser system for femtosecond spectroscopy, the illumination of events occurring in a fraction of a second. The equipment will allow O'Neill to probe ultra-fast, light-driven biological reactions, and to use light to visualize how molecules found in the eyes move, interact and react in response to light. “Human function relies on circadian rhythm and its accurate synchronization with the outside world by light coming through our eyes,” observes O'Neill. “Yet, virtually nothing is known about this process.”

The CFI, a federally created research funding body, awards new opportunity grants to newly recruited, full-time faculty pursuing leading edge research.•

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