SFU support helps foundation succeed

May 01, 2003, vol. 27, no. 1
By Roberta Staley

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A special look at health research

As one of Canada's top-ranked comprehensive universities, SFU has no medical school. Yet 130 faculty and their students, representing departments ranging from gerontology to molecular biology and biochemistry, are involved in ground-breaking medical and health-related research. “We want to depart from the conventional clinical models of health research and education,”says President Michael Stevenson. “By drawing on our interdisciplinary strengths, there are very real opportunities in areas such as health promotion and population health to explore.” These stories showcase SFU's prowess in the medical and health research field.

In one short year, the Down Syndrome research foundation has become a mecca for scientists, pediatricians and families from around the globe.

Officially opened in April 2002, the $3 million Burnaby facility, the first of its kind in the world, is gaining renown as the world's premier resource, education and research centre for Down syndrome. Far from being intimidating and clinical, its genial, casual setting, with vast windows, large airy spaces and colourful play areas, engenders natural and spontaneous relations between researchers and their subjects.

It is estimated that more than 300 families with Down syndrome children have already participated in the centre's programs. Another 1,700 families have used its website, library and publications.

SFU has been a significant supporter of the Down syndrome foundation almost since its creation in 1995. The first tiny office was set up on campus. The growth and success of the foundation is directly linked to the selfless support, enthusiasm and collaborative research projects that have involved senior university personnel. SFU's VP-research, Bruce Clayman, is on the foundation's board of directors while the former dean of applied sciences, Ron Marteniuk, is a former board member. And Hal Weinberg, SFU's director, office of research ethics, is the foundation's director of research.

Dan Weeks, SFU's chair of psychology, says that a range of educational programs and clinical services are now up and running. Graduate students, as well as venerable authorities in the field, are carrying out original research, one being a unique, ongoing study of infant development in Down syndrome babies.

Down syndrome is the most common genetic abnormality in humans, occurring in one in 800 children. As recently as a decade ago, children with Down syndrome were regularly institutionalized, and given little education or training. It is now recognized that early, specialized inter-vention helps Down syndrome kids become integrated and contributing members of society.

Josephine Mills, the centre's executive director, adds that many other studies, focusing upon motor control, vision, healthcare, language acquis-ition, nutrition and quality-of-life, have become international collaborations. “The people associated with this centre are very credible. As a result we are attracting some of the best researchers in the world,” Mills says.

This year, several new ambitious projects are being planned, including establishing a SFU chair in Down syndrome. And the $3.4 million magnetoencephalograph (MEG) program should be under way by fall, says Weinberg.

A magnetoencephalograph measures the brain's magnetic fields in a completely non-invasive manner with the best available time resolution, making it superior to other brain-scanning machines like MRIs and ECGs.
The MEG allows functional mapping of how the brain processes visual and auditory information, including the development of language. This is vital to creating education programs that are specifically targeted to individual Down syndrome kids, Weinberg says.

This research will increase the understanding of other severe learning disabilities like autism, as well as the way tumours and strokes affect brain function, says Weinberg. “It will give the foundation worldwide recognition,” he says.

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