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$2M funding supports study of drug-resistant pathogens


Guelph, ON – Battling disease-causing bacteria – including potentially deadly microbes resistant to current therapies – is the ultimate goal of research by a University of Guelph microbiologist chosen to receive a $2-million federal grant.

Prof. Chris Whitfield, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, will use his seven-year Foundation Grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) for studies of drug-resistant pathogens that increasingly threaten human health.

“This is wonderful news for Professor Whitfield and the University of Guelph,” said Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research). “This important investment will provide Chris with the foundation to sustain his innovative and high-impact research, which has both scientific and practical applications.”

Whitfield and three other U of G researchers received awards in the latest CIHR funding round announced this month. In total, more than 600 grants worth nearly $670 million were allocated to researchers across Canada.

U of G professors, Nina Jones, molecular and cellular biology; Kieran O’Doherty, psychology, and Jess Haines, family relations and applied nutrition, were awarded Project Grants for more targeted health studies.

By learning more about how microbes resist current therapies, Whitfield hopes to help point industry toward better vaccines and antibiotics for specific bacteria causing everything from bloodstream and urinary tract infections to meningitis.

“Many of these bacteria are already resistant to antibiotics and some are becoming resistant to ‘last-resort’ approaches,” he said.

He studies complex sugar polymers on cell surfaces that enable microbes to outwit the human immune system and to resist many currently available antibiotics.

Now he plans to expand his studies of how these cell surface structures are made. By learning more how their production is integrated with other cellular systems, he hopes to develop new approaches for combatting disease-causing bacteria. Referring to microbes’ ability to leapfrog new treatments, he said, “We are constantly trying to stay one step ahead or, more worrisome, trying to catch up.”

He will use the CIHR funding to support researchers in his lab, including graduate and undergraduate students, post-doctoral researchers and other staff. Whitfield works with multidisciplinary researchers in his department and at other institutions in Canada and abroad.

Other Guelph research projects funded under CIHR Project Grants are the following:

– Nina Jones, MCB, $737,744, five years: Molecular and cellular processes involved in development and potential treatment of chronic kidney disease, which affects three million Canadians;

– Kieran O’Doherty, Psychology, $100,000, one year: Design and use of “public deliberation” processes to learn more about vaccine hesitancy and improve vaccination policy; and

– Jess Haines, FRAN, $100,000, one year: Conduct the Guelph Family Health Study designed to involve families in preventing obesity in children.