College of Health Sciences receives just under $10 million in spring 2023 CIHR project grants

Federal funding will boost research across four health science faculties.

Shirley Wilfong-Pritchard - 18 September 2023

With their latest round of project grants, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is supporting health research throughout the College of Health Sciences. We contacted some of the grant recipients to learn about their work, how this funding will impact it and what advice they have for other researchers applying for funding. 

Troy Baldwin, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology: Mechanisms regulating non-deletional T cell central tolerance

T cells, a type of immune cell, play an important role in a variety of health areas, such as the clearing of infections, vaccinations and eliminating cancer. But they can also cause autoimmunity. 

Troy Baldwin and his team are working to learn more about how the function of T cells is regulated, and how T cells are controlled as they’re first generated in the thymus — whether they will be taught to target pathogen-infected/cancerous cells or healthy tissues. 

With CIHR bridge funding, Baldwin’s team can continue experiments to determine the key signals that the protein PD-1 delivers that result in tolerance — rendering T cells non-responsive to normal, healthy tissues. 

The team uses the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry-supported Flow Cytometry Facility to analyze experiments, the High Content Analysis Core to look at changes at the genetic level that PD-1 signalling impacts, and the Health Sciences Laboratory Animal Services (HSLAS)

facilities to house their preclinical models. “We’re heavily indebted to those facilities; we wouldn’t be able to do the research that we’re doing without them,” says Baldwin.

“Fundamental research is about learning how and why something happens and sometimes, about how to make something work better,” says Baldwin. For example, checkpoint blockade therapy treats cancer by targeting receptors such as PD-1. While it impacts cells in the blood, it could also impact new T cells in the thymus, causing autoimmune side-effects. “Although it works really well for some people, we don’t fully understand how it’s working, and why only some people benefit from it. Hopefully, the work we’re doing can shed some light on that.”

John Seubert, Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences: Synthetic analogues based on metabolites of omega-3 fatty acids protect mitochondria in aging hearts

Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in older individuals, and  the deterioration of key cellular organelles, such as mitochondria, plays a critical role. Maintenance of a healthy mitochondrial population is essential for the preservation of a healthy heart. In addition, dietary sources of fatty acids are known to have a significant effect on cardiovascular health, but many of the benefits are poorly understood. John Seubert and his team are working to understand the fundamental mechanisms of bioactive lipids and the development of novel synthetic analogs to protect mitochondrial quality following cardiac injury.

“We have several large aims to address over the course of the project, which involve molecular design and modelling, synthesis, in vivo studies characterizing pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic properties as well as mechanistic studies,” says Seubert. “Importantly, these funds will allow us to support research staff, students and drug development.”

Seubert is working with Khaled Barakat and Tony Kiang from Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Zamaneh Kassiri, Gavin Oudit and Michael Overduin from Medicine & Dentistry, John Falck from the University of Texas and numerous graduate and undergraduate students, postdoctoral researchers and technologists.  

“An important factor contributing to our success comes from having excellent collaborators and trainees working together on the research,” adds Seubert.

Karim Fouad, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine: Improving reproducibility in experimental research by using shared data - a use case in spinal cord injury

In the field of preclinical spinal cord injury (SCI) research, the number of subjects in experimental groups is notoriously too low, reducing the statistical power of experiments and resulting in false predictions of experimental outcomes. Karim Fouad and A. Torres-Espin lead a team of researchers to address this problem by creating historical controls to supplement the subject numbers.

“By increasing the statistical power of preclinical research,” explains Fouad, “we will increase the precision of results, greatly accelerating the translation and success of experimental treatments for people living with the devastating consequences of a spinal cord injury. Further, the success of our study will likely be influential for many other fields in biomedical research.” 

This project relies on collaboration and input from other researchers, including Nader Fallah from the Praxis Spinal Cord Institute and several researchers who have agreed to share their data on Open Data Commons for Spinal Cord Injury, a platform developed by Fouad and Torres-Espin’s team in collaboration with the University of California.

CIHR funding will enable the team to bring new students and researchers into the critical field of using big data in SCI research, and allow them to demonstrate the value of publishing and reusing all research data. 

Candace Nykiforuk, professor, School of Public Health and director, Centre for Healthy Communities: Improving awareness and uptake of systems-oriented resources for action on poverty and financial well-being: An integrated KT (knowledge translation) and evaluation project

Funded by CIHR in 2020-21, Candace Nykiforuk and her international, multi-sectoral practice-research team developed a Public Health Framework and companion Guidebook in PDF format — evidence-based resources to help governments and organizations address poverty and financial insecurity in diverse communities and promote financial well-being at the population level. 

With this year’s CIHR funding, the team will develop a website with user-friendly, interactive, accessible, online versions of the framework and guidebook in both English and French. They will also add to the academic literature with an evaluation of their process of working with knowledge users and end-users to inform their work, and an assessment of the project outcomes of reach, effectiveness, adoption, sustainability and equity.

To other researchers looking to apply for funding, Nykiforuk says, “My best advice is to not take rejection personally and to persevere. I had to rework and resubmit this grant before it got funded, which is typical with project grant competitions. Take advantage of opportunities for internal peer review. Trust your team, really listen to them and let them help you. My team is essential for grant success — they bring incredibly diverse experience and expertise to the table, which really comes out as we write proposals together.”

Other successful applicants to the 2023 spring CIHR project grants include: