media release

SFU health-related research nets new financial awards

August 14, 2012

Lori Last, MSFHR, 604.714.2788,
Carol Thorbes, PAMR, 778.782.3035,

Ralph Pantophlet
Photo on Flickr

Four Simon Fraser University researchers who are pioneering new ways of attacking HIV/AIDS are among nine SFU scientists getting a major injection of new funding from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR).

The provincially-funded, health research support agency has awarded Zabrina BrummeBohdan NosykRalph PantophletWill Small — HIV/AIDS researchers in the Faculty of Health Sciences — and six other SFU scientists up to $810,000, collectively.

Individually, the scientists have garnered up to $635,000 over eight years in new research-scholar funding. The awards aim to attract and keep pioneering researchers in British Columbia by helping them launch and build a leading research program with the promise of making a significant health difference.

Brumme (assistant professor) leads the first large-scale investigation of HIV’s adaptation to the body’s immune response. By analyzing HIV and host genetic sequences from 1979 to the present, her research team is characterizing HIV evolution over the epidemic’s course. The results of this study will reveal the effect of human immune pressure on HIV replication and viral protein function. It has the potential to advance HIV vaccine research significantly.

Nosyk’s (adjunct professor) evaluation of the cost effectiveness of HIV treatments, such as highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), as disease-prevention strategies is helping governments make decisions about the best way to allocate scarce health resources. HAART stops HIV replication and, as a result, helps reduce the virus in the human blood system to undetectable levels.

Pantophlet’s (assistant professor) research program is developing novel ways of designing vaccines that will induce broad immunity to HIV infection. Specifically, his laboratory is trying to isolate molecular and immunological conditions that encourage antibody production with the capacity to block a wide variety of HIV strains. Current viral vaccines, though successful in fighting many important infectious diseases, are the product of design approaches that don’t address HIV’s evasion of our immune defenses through its continuous evolution.

Small (assistant professor) is examining how social, structural and physical environments affect illicit drug users’ HIV risk behaviour and treatment-related outcomes. The study is nested within a larger program that includes three epidemiological cohort studies of adult drug users and street-involved youth. The studies integrate ethnographic observations from fieldwork, in-depth interviews and geo-spatial mapping with quantitative lab and survey data to identify how the social, structural and physical features of drug-use scenes shape HIV outcomes.

The other SFU recipients of new MSFHR research scholar awards are: Scott Venners, Pablo Nepomnaschy, Valorie Crooks, Carlo Menon and Tim Storr. The following backgrounder provides details on their newly funded work.

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Backgrounder: MSFHR financial boost to SFU research

In addition to four SFU HIV/AIDS researchers, the following SFU scientists have garnered news MSFHR research scholar awards amounting to $810,000, collectively.

Scott Venners and Pablo Nepomnaschy are assistant professors in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Venners is studying how exposure to environmental pollutants leads to small size at birth and diabetes in adulthood and links to health inequities between richer and poorer people governed by the prevalence of these conditions. For example, babies born to mothers in poorer parts of Vancouver are more likely to be born under-sized than those born in other parts of the city, and higher levels of exposure to second-hand smoke and other pollutants may be a factor. The project will also study the links between socioeconomic status, exposure to pollutants in adulthood, and inequalities in diabetes risk between richer and poorer Canadians.

Nepomnaschy will seek to understand how the overlap between functions that regulate stress in the body and those that regulate reproduction affects transitions in women’s reproductive phases. His study will review data from British Columbian and Guatemalan women. Due to the socio-economic and ethnic homogeneity of the Guatemalan population, data from these women provides a unique opportunity for the development of a basic model of the longitudinal relationship between the stress function and the reproductive function.

Valorie Crooks, associate professor, geography department, is investigating how Canadians’ pursuit of medical procedures outside of Canada, a practice known as medical tourism, is affecting health equity. Her qualitative study focuses on Canadian medical tourism in Barbados, Guatemala, Mexico and India. Crooks hopes to gain a better understanding of the positive and negative impacts of medical tourism for both Canada and the destination country. This information will help Canadian patients make informed choices and allow Canadian health-care providers and administrators to provide needed guidance to patients.

Carlo Menon, an assistant professor, engineering sciences school, is leading the design of a robotic device to assist individuals with weakened upper extremities due to aging, stroke, injury, or other diseases. The portable and wearable device will assist with functional movements and strengthen the muscular tone of injured extremities. This research will improve the quality of life for individuals with neuromuscular disorders by restoring mobility of the upper extremities, which is critical to activities in daily living, such as eating and dressing.

Tim Storr, assistant professor, chemistry department, is developing new chemical tools to diagnose and treat two types of diseases associated with compromised life expectancy:  metal-overload diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.  Working at the interface of chemistry, biology and medicine, Storr is designing and testing innovative new disease treatments aimed at benefitting our society and economy by moving us towards a cure for Alzheimer’s and cancer.

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