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$1.6M for health research projects in Newfoundland


St John’s, NL – Newfoundland’s Research & Development Corporation (RDC) is providing more than $1.6 million to support 14 health-related R&D projects at Memorial University’s Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Science.

In total, the funding, which totals $1,679,557 will enable researchers to leverage more than $3.5 million from other funding sources, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the Arthritis Society, and Memorial University including its Genesis Group.

“Our academic funding programs attract, develop and retain highly-qualified researchers at the academic level and foster a collaborative research environment,” said Glenn Janes, RDC’s chief executive officer. “Health sector R&D investments like today’s generate significant economic outcomes, including commercial products, increased productivity, research-related employment opportunities, decreased public health-care costs and substantial health benefits.”

“Memorial University is home to exceptional health researchers,” said Dr Christopher Loomis, Vice President (Research), Memorial University. “Their innovative work, enabled by investments from RDC, is advancing our understanding of important health problems and helping to identify new ways to improve the lives of the people of this province and beyond. Financial support from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, awarded through programs of the Research & Development Corporation, is also essential to creating a competitive and successful environment for research and innovation.”

In support of health research, RDC partners with CIHR through the Regional Partnership Program to provide additional research funding in Newfoundland and Labrador. CIHR provides up to $1 million in incremental funding as a result of this partnership. The Newfoundland and Labrador Regional Partnership Program advisory committee evaluates projects according to CIHR grant type and score, budget requirements and alignment with agreed upon priority areas.

Following are descriptions of the projects receiving funding from RDC:

1) Targeting the Pygopus Gene for Prostate Cancer Detection and Treatment, $90,247 from RDC
Dr Kenneth Kao, Division of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University.
Prostate cancer affects one in six men, yet a significant proportion of tumours may remain dormant for several years without physically affecting the patient. Alternatively, some cancers develop and grow rapidly that prompt radical intervention. This project is directed at discovering novel biomarkers for cancer detection and treatment. One of these biomarkers is called Pygopus, which is a protein that is needed for cells when they have to grow and divide rapidly. Findings show that Pygopus protein is highly concentrated within a sub-compartment of the nucleus, called the “nucleolus”, of prostate cancer cells. Pygopus, however, is not found at such high levels in the nucleolus of normal and benign cells. This project will examine this phenomenon to determine how widespread the Pygopus biomarker is in the Newfoundland and Labrador prostate cancer patient population and attempt to determine whether Pygopus can be used as a therapeutic targeting strategy for prostate cancer. RDC’s funding leverages $38,184 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, $10,000 from the Genesis Group, $79,953 from Ride for Dad and $19,500 from Memorial University.

2) Community Identity and Genetic Risk: Determining Knowledge Pathways Related to Genetic Predispositions in Newfoundland and Labrador, $22,500 from RDC
Jill Allison, Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University.
The history of isolation and patterns of early immigration and settlement in Newfoundland and Labrador contributes to a unique population with a number of genetic diseases. This project explores the meaning of genetic diagnosis to people from this province and how aspects of biology and the concept of health now shape our individual, social and political identities. The research will be based on interviews with people affected by or concerned with genetic disease in their community, also taking into account that medical technology can shape society. This project aims to contribute research findings that will be important for policy makers and health educators, health care providers, as well as to the knowledge of what people in Newfoundland understand about genetic disease, what information they need and how best to provide it. Funding from RDC leverages $22,500 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

3) Using a Genetic Isolate to Identify Novel Genes Causing Otosclerosis, the Most Common Cause of Progressive Hearing Loss in Caucasians Worldwide, $45,000 from RDC
Nelly Abdelfatah, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University.
Otosclerosis is a type of conductive hearing loss that affects adults in their 20s to 30s and may lead to profound hearing loss across all sound frequencies. It is caused by abnormal overgrowth of bone in the middle ear that results in the small hammer bone (stapes) attaching to the ear drum. In some cases, this type of deafness runs in families and is passed on generation after generation. For a diagnosis of otosclerosis, a doctor, who is an ears, nose and throat specialist, has to exclude all other diseases that may cause the progressive hearing loss observed in the patient. If the diagnosis is correct, a surgical procedure that separates the hammer bone from the ear drum can completely restore hearing. Genetic studies are underway in families with otosclerosis to identify the genes causing the abnormal bone growth in order to understand why it happens so preventative therapies can be developed and to provide a genetic test to identify those who would benefit from the surgical procedure. Funding from RDC leverages $45,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

4) Cerebrovascular Alterations Associated with Stroke, $176,719 from RDC
Dr John Smeda, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University.
This research will test the effects of providing captopril and/or losartan treatment to a special breed of rat after the animal has had a stroke. Both captopril and losartan are drugs that are used to treat high blood pressure in humans. It is known that giving treatment with captopril and/or losartan after stroke improves clinical outcomes, but it is not known why. Previous research has shown that these rats will have a blood clot expansion and a secondary hemorrhage formation after the first stroke. This is important since an expanding blood clot after stroke is a direct predictor of death, both in rats and humans. This project is aimed at understanding the mechanisms that are involved in producing hemorrhagic stroke and to try to develop treatment therapies that can be used to prevent death and disability after this stroke develops. Funding from RDC leverages $176,719 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

5) MIER1 Alpha, a Novel PPAR Gamma Co-regulator, and its Role in Adipogenesis, $139,218 from RDC
Dr Gary Paterno, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University.
Over the past two decades, the prevalence of obesity in the western world has increased at an alarming rate, with Newfoundland and Labrador recording the highest rate in Canada. This has led to a significant increase in obesity-related disorders and dealing with these disorders requires a complete understanding of fat metabolism at the cellular and molecular level. The fat cells in the body, the adipocytes, are the pivotal players in fat storage and metabolism. A molecule called PPARy in these cells is a “master” regulator that controls adipocyte number, size and function. Prior R&D discovered a critical modulator of PPARy called mesoderm induction early response 1 alpha (MIER1a) and preliminary work provides evidence that knocking out MIER1a significantly reduces the number of fat cells. This research project is aimed at determining the role of MI
ER1a in human adipose tissue, and the potential MIER1a has to provide a novel target for the design of therapeutic drugs for the treatment of obesity. Funding from RDC leverages $139,218 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

6) Identifying Novel Genes Causing Otosclerosis, the Most Common Cause of Progressive Hearing Loss in Caucasians Worldwide, $250,554 from RDC
Dr Terry-Lynn Young, Discipline of Genetics, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University.
Otosclerosis is a type of conductive hearing loss that affects adults in their 20s to 30s and may progress to profound hearing loss. It is caused by abnormal overgrowth of the tiny bones in the middle ear, causing these normally mobile bones to “freeze”. In some cases, this type of hearing loss runs in families and is passed on generation after generation. For a diagnosis of otosclerosis, a doctor (ears, nose and throat specialist) has to exclude all other diseases that may cause the progressive hearing loss she/he observes in the patient. If the diagnosis is correct, a surgical procedure (called a stapedectomy) can completely restore hearing. Genetic studies are underway in families with otosclerosis to identify the genes causing the abnormal bone growth in order to provide a genetic test that can quickly provide an accurate diagnosis and to understand why it happens so preventative therapies can be developed. Funding from RDC leverages $250,544 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

7) Identification of Genetic Factors Correlated with Survival in Colorectal Cancer: Investigation of Genetic Markers from Angiogenesis/Lymphangiogenesis and Metastasis Pathways, $114,190
Dr Sevtap Savas, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University.
Cancer survival is modified by a variety of factors, including genetic factors. Identification of these genetic factors plays a critical role in selection of appropriate treatment regimen and delivering the most effective medical care to patients, however, the majority of the genetic factors influencing survival in colorectal cancer is currently unknown. Generation of new blood vessels around tumours is a biological process directly involved in tumour growth and its spread to distant sites in the body. In this project, Dr Savas aims to investigate the genetic correlation of genes involved in this new blood vessel growth and its relation to survival in colorectal cancer by obtaining genetic profiles of patients, followed by statistical analyses. Results of this study may improve patient survival in colorectal cancer. Funding from RDC leverages $114,190 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

8) The Newfoundland Genealogical Toolkit, $250,000 from RDC
Dr Proton Rahman, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University.
The Newfoundland Genealogical Toolkit will be a state-of-the-art information technology platform able to generate large family trees necessary to conduct world-class studies on the role played by genetics in disease, drug efficacy and adverse events. The system will be able to link detailed, existing Newfoundland genealogical databases to information regarding family structure, disease status, drug exposure and clinical outcomes. The toolkit will provide support for new gene discoveries linked to diseases, genetic causes for adverse drug reactions (ADRs), pharmacogenetic (drug-genetic interactions) studies and personalized medicine. Funding from RDC leverages $1,750,000 from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, $120,500 from the Arthritis Society, $61,900 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Salary Grant and $60,000 from the Memorial University’s Faculty of Medicine.

9) Protection of CNS Neurons by Heat Shock Proteins, $163,677 from RDC
Dr Karen Mearow, Division of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University.
This project is aimed at studying the role of Heat Shock Protein 27 (Hsp27) in Alzheimer’s disease. It has been known in the scientific literature for some time that a small protein called beta-amyloid, forms plaques that are present in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. It is also thought that these plaques are a major cause of the development of Alzheimer’s disease. It has been more recently discovered that there are increased levels of Hsp27 in the amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. However, it is unclear whether the Hsp27 is present as part of the disease process or if they gather in the brain in a potentially protective response to the stress the brain is under in this situation. This project seeks to find the exact mechanism of how Hsp27 protects neurons from cell damage and death from beta-amyloid protein. Funding from RDC leverages $163,677 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

10) Origin of the Arrhythmogenic Calcium in Cardiac Purkinje Fibres after Myocardial Infarction, $62,546 from RDC
Dr Bruno Stuyvers, Division of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University.
Most deaths associated with heart attacks are caused by a lethal form of cardiac arrhythmias called Polymorphic Ventricular Tachycardia or PVTs. Without appropriate medical assistance, PVTs can escalate to the point of causing cardiac arrest. This project aims to identify new targets for more selective anti-arrhythmic drugs that will prevent or interrupt the progression of PVTs into arrhythmias during the heart attack. This will also assist clinical procedures to minimize the risk of PVTs in emergency situations of severe heart attack. Understanding the risk of lethal arrhythmias is a highly relevant issue for society and this project is intended to contribute to this critical area of medical research. Funding from RDC leverages $62,546 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

11) Signal Transduction Pathways Regulating Genetic Exchange, $105,000 from RDC
Dr Andrew Lang, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Memorial University.
Bacteria employ several different mechanisms for the movement of genetic material between cells. One of these is the movement of genes through the activities of viruses, whereby the virus acts as the “carrier” of genetic information between bacterial cells. Recent work in Dr Lang’s laboratory has revealed that the production of the genetic exchange activity is regulated through a complex regulatory system and that this activity is stimulated in response to nutrient deprivation. This project brings Dr Lang’s laboratory together with leading researchers in Canada and the United States to decipher how the genetic exchange activity is coordinated through this complex regulatory network. In collaboration with one of the most advanced proteomics facilities worldwide, this project will make use of novel genomic technologies to further the understanding of genetic exchange processes. Funding from RDC leverages $400,000 from the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory.

12) Study of the Molecular Regulation of Fat Cell Growth and Development in Obesity, $100,000 from RDC
Dr Sherri Christian, Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Science, Memorial University.
Over 60 per cent of adult Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are at risk for developing obesity-related diseases such as Type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer. Identification of molecular regulators of fat cell development and growth that could be targeted to reduce fat tissue mass in obese individuals could lead to a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms that regulate weight gain and weight loss. This project will explore how the cell-surface receptors on newborn fat cells control the development of these cells into fully functional white fat cells that make up the majority of fat tissue. Understanding how the normal development of newborn fat cells into mature fat tissue is controlled is crucial for the development of safe and potentially long-lasting, therapies or interventions that could reduce the amount of fat tissue in obese individuals.

13) Mapping Public Health for the Future, $59,906 from RDC
Dr James Valcour, Communit
y Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University.
This project involves the development and implementation of a public health geographic information system that will be used to monitor, inform and research emerging or existing public health problems. The system will allow for improved public health response to emerging or changing disease situations and enhance decision making in the public health authorities.

14) Identification of Blood Lipids That May Influence Coronary Artery Disease, $100,000 from RDC
Dr Robert Brown, Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Science, Memorial University.
Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of premature death in Newfoundland and Labrador. Treatment options are limited and pharmaceuticals are needed to complement existing treatment methods. This project focuses on understanding how a group of common enzymes known as lipases can potentially provide both detrimental and beneficial effects on the progression of coronary artery disease. Lipases that are exposed to blood break down the lipids that are associated with both LDL (or “bad cholesterol”) and HDL (or “good cholesterol”) through a process known as hydrolysis. Understanding how these products of hydrolysis alter tissue functions is extremely important toward identifying new compounds that can mimic the protective effects of some products and block the detrimental effects of other products. Research will ultimately identify novel pathways that will be of interest to the pharmaceutical industry for developing new medications that can alter these pathways and combat coronary artery disease.