Millions awarded for health research

October 20, 2005, vol. 34, no. 4
By Carol Thorbes



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An infusion of $3.25 million in federal funding will bolster health-related research at Simon Fraser University.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has awarded 19 SFU researchers that much in grants. SFU had the second highest number of funded projects in B.C. in this round of CIHR awards. The new funding brings the total value of grants awarded to SFU researchers, since CIHR's inception in 2000, to $13.6 million.

“This announcement is especially timely as we continue to embrace radical change and risk-taking in our 40th anniversary year, and expand our founding programs in health research with a new faculty of health sciences,” observes Mario Pinto. SFU's VP-research stresses, “Our focus will be of an interdisciplinary nature that combines diverse initiatives, ranging from the biomedical sciences to health education, population and public health, and global health. The new faculty has attracted stellar researchers to join the approximately 130 faculty members across many disciplines, who are currently engaged in health research and education at SFU. We stand to assume a world-leadership role in targeting infectious disease, chronic illness, premature death and disability, and global disease control - to improve the quality of life for all.”

Behavioural neuroscientist Ralph Mistlberger, molecular biologists David Baillie (also Canada Research Chair) and Mark Paetzel, and biologist Harald Hutter are receiving operating grants worth up to $500,000 each.

Mistlberger will use his $476,648 to investigate how stimuli other than light (non-photic) can be used to re-synchronize the master pacemaker or circadian clock in mammals and humans. Bodily processes in humans and other mammals operate on a 24-hour cycle controlled by genetically based circadian clocks that are synchronized to the day-night cycle by their sensitivity to morning and evening light. Mistlberger wants to understand how non-photic stimuli, such as exercise, food, and arousal from sleep also cause the circadian clock to reset.

“The holy grail of applications would be to harness non-photic control of the clock to enable rapid clock resetting in shiftworkers, jet travelers and people whose synchronization to photic stimuli is damaged. This includes the blind and some insomniacs. By working out the neural and molecular genetic mechanisms we hope to clarify the critical sensory and/or motor stimuli necessary and sufficient for non-photic clock resetting, and identify targets for pharmacological interventions.”

19 researchers given grants

Nineteen SFU researchers took grants in the latest round of CIHR awards. they include:

New investigators award
Molecular biologist Fiona Brinkman and clinical geropsychologist Norm O'Rourke have each received $275,000. The new investigator award is a salary award, rather than a research grant, awarded to top young researchers based on their early research accomplishments. The award will allow Brinkman to further pursue ongoing research on pathogenic bioinformatics. The award will enable O'Rourke to further his research into links among adaptive cognitive behaviour, such as marital aggrandizement, interpersonal behaviour and well-being. Marital aggrandizement refers to a spouse's tendency to hold an exceedingly positive view of his or her partner and their marriage. The view has been linked to the mental and physical health of older adults. O'Rourke has also been awarded the CIHR recognition prize for aging research.

JSPS-CIHR joint health research program
Kinesiologist Ted Milner has been awarded $60,000 through the Japan-Canada joint health research program. The grant is awarded jointly to a scientist in Canada and a collaborator in Japan. Funding in Canada is through CIHR, while funding in Japan is through the Japan society for the promotion of science. The award is designed to advance health research by combining expertise and facilities in Japan and Canada. Milner and researchers at the ATR computational neuroscience labs in Japan are collaborating on the development of a robotic interface that is compatible with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology. Such an adaptation will enable Milner and his colleagues to study brain activity associated with learning and controlling movement while performing every day activities.

CIHR fellowships
Lucien Junior Bergeron, a post-doctoral fellow in the department of molecular biology and biochemistry is one of three recipients of CIHR fellowships. Bergeron's $135,000 scholarship is designed to support highly qualified postdoctoral fellows or post-health professional degree recipients to foster their continued health research in Canada or abroad. Bergeron will use his fellowship to further his development of a therapeutic tool akin to a pair of molecular scissors. This invention would surpass current therapeutic tools by enabling specific gene expressions to be inhibited. They currently cannot be controlled with any specificity temporally or spatially. The application of a specific wavelength of light would enable Bergeron's molecular scissors to turn gene expression on or off at a specific time in a specific cell, thereby lessening the potential for secondary effects.

Canada graduate scholarships
Kinesiology doctoral candidate Jingbo Huang, a native of China, originally trained as a doctor, and molecular biology and biochemistry doctoral candidate Jennifer Gardy are among three recipients of graduate scholarships. The award provides special recognition and support to students pursuing a doctoral degree in a health-related field in Canada. Placing eighth among 800 Canada-wide applicants for these graduate scholarships,

Huang is using her $105,000 award to take a multi-facetted approach to understanding the underlying mechanisms of heart function change during development.

Her research is based on the premise that more detailed knowledge of the physiology, electrophysiology and biochemistry of the developing heart will increase the survival of children born with congenital heart defects. Forty per cent of them die if they do not get a risky operation within the first year of their lives.

Jennifer Gardy, the holder of a Michael Smith foundation for health research graduate award, placed 11th in the competition for her CIHR award. She will use her $70,000 award to improve computational methods for studying protein localization. The doctoral candidate researches how proteins are sent to the proper destination in a bacterial cell.

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