New Canada Research Chairs driven to improve health outcomes for Canadians

Meet the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry's newest Canada Research Chairs.

ROSS NEITZ - 24 June 2019

Restoring mobility of Canadians living with spinal cord injury. Understanding how stress plays a role in metabolism. Making drinking water more safe. These are just a few examples of the work being done by University of Alberta researchers who have been awarded new Canada Research Chairs.

The Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry is home to several new chairs as a result of the program's most recent competition. Established in 2000, the Canada Research Chairs Program (CRCP) stands at the centre of a national strategy to make Canada one of the world's top countries in research and development. Chairholders aim to achieve research excellence in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences.

Meet the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry's newest Canada Research Chairs.

Jessica Yue: Unlocking the impact of stress on metabolism

Assistant professor, Department of Physiology
Alberta Diabetes Institute member

Canada Research Chair in Brain Regulation of Metabolism

It's well known how a diet high in sugar and fats can lead to diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Less understood is how stress also plays a major role in how our bodies regulate our eating habits, physical activity and control of blood sugar and fat levels.

Jessica Yue, Canada Research Chair in Brain Regulation of Metabolism, is addressing this gap. Through her work, research is underway to better understand how the actions of stress-related hormones in the brain can alter the body's balance of sugar, fat and energy metabolism.

Knowing that the brain detects hormones to regulate metabolism, the research will address how stress hormones signal within the brain to modulate glucose, lipid, and energy homeostasis. It will also examine if the signalling mechanisms are altered under conditions of energy excess (such as type 2 diabetes and obesity) or energy deprivation (like hypoglycemia or fasting).

In the past, most research having to do with metabolism has traditionally focused on individual organs or on specific signaling pathways within particular cells. Yue's research program takes a different tact, addressing the urgent need for a greater understanding of the basic neural processes that regulate metabolism.

With a growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes in modern society, Yue's research could provide desperately needed real-world answers in how to prevent and treat the diseases in the future.

Vivian Mushahwar: Restoring mobility for Canadians living with spinal cord injury

Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation

Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute member

Director, Sensory Motor Adaptive Rehabilitation Technology (SMART) Network
Canada Research Chair in Functional Restoration

For Canadians living with spinal cord injury (SCI), the impacts of their condition are life-long. Functional difficulties that compromise mobility, sensation, breathing, and bowel and bladder function are part of their everyday reality.

While it's believed the ultimate treatment for SCI lies in regenerating damaged spinal cord segments, clinical trials to date have shown no functional benefits. In the absence of regeneration, electrical stimulation and active rehabilitation are now acknowledged as the most effective approaches for improving function after SCI.

Vivian Mushahwar, Canada Research Chair in Functional Restoration, is advancing efforts to improve electrical stimulation and active rehabilitation to obtain better patient outcomes.

Mushahwar's work is aimed at understanding the mechanistic underpinnings of movement and identifying innovative strategies for restoring mobility. It also focuses on investigating the pathways leading to tissue breakdown following sensory or motor impairment, and developing new preventative and treatment strategies.

By advancing her scientific findings, Mushahwar aims to develop intelligent medical devices and innovative rehabilitation interventions to restore standing and walking, and prevent complications such as pressure ulcers. Her work stands at the forefront of biomedicine-merging neuroscience, neural engineering and rehabilitation medicine-and bringing hope of a better future for Canadians living with spinal cord injury.

Xing-Fang Li: Ensuring safe drinking water for Canadians

Professor, Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology, Division of Analytical and Environmental Toxicology

Canada Research Chair in Analytical and Environmental Toxicology

Water affects every aspect of society, from human health and the environment to industry and the global economy. Clean drinking water is a basic human need, but balancing chemical and microbial risks can be surprisingly difficult because of the complexity of water sources and processes for water treatment.

Confronting this challenge has been a central theme in Xing-Fang Li's research throughout her career. Li, the Canada Research Chair in Analytical and Environmental Toxicology, is focusing on making drinking water safer by better understanding and controlling for both microbial and chemical risks.

For more than a century, humans have disinfected drinking water to minimize microbial risk and prevent waterborne infection. While drinking water is safer than ever before, scientists are now getting a better grasp on how the disinfection process can create chemical byproducts that carry their own risks-such as bladder cancer and birth defects.

Thousands of different disinfection byproducts (DBPs) can form during the water disinfection processes, but because of their complexity, only a fraction have been identified to date. Faced with tremendous challenges and a knowledge gap, regulatory agencies such as Health Canada and the United States Environmental Protection Agency only regulate a few DBPs that are easy to quantify.

While the current regulatory guidelines on DBPs have served as a control of disinfection practice for public health protection, these do not address real issues of chemical risk. Through her work, Li aims to develop analytical technology to identify new water disinfection byproducts, and to gain a fundamental understanding of their potential health effects. By discovering and characterizing contaminants in drinking water, Li hopes to improve treatment strategies for ensuring water safety for all Canadians.

Lisa Hartling: Driving health research into real-world results

Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine
Women and Children's Health Research Institute member

Stollery Science Lab Distinguished Researcher

Canada Research Chair in Knowledge Synthesis and Translation

Each year, billions of dollars are spent on health research to develop new knowledge and innovations. Yet the translation of health research into action, also known as knowledge translation, is often slow and unplanned.

Failure to implement the best available research in health care is widespread. Evidence shows that not all patients receive treatments that research has shown to be effective, and a good portion of patients get treatments that are not needed or may be harmful. It is also recognized that patients and health providers do not always have the information needed to make the best decisions possible.

There is growing recognition that inefficiencies in health care stem, in part, from a gap between research (what we know) and practice (what we do). Through her work, Lisa Hartling, Canada Research Chair in Knowledge Synthesis and Translation, is driving efforts to address the research-to-practice gap.

Knowledge synthesis brings together the best available research evidence for informed decision-making. Hartling is focused on increasing knowledge synthesis efficiencies through advanced methods, machine-learning and open-science approaches. She also aims to grow knowledge translation by sharing research evidence with end-users in meaningful ways.

With better research informing clinical practice, Hartling's work will help ensure that health-care providers, decision-makers in government, and patients and their families have the information needed to make the best possible choices for better health outcomes.

Cycle 2 CRC Announcement

Canada Research Chairs Program has also recently announced its cycle 2 recipients, which include:

  • Zam Kassiri - Canada Research Chair in Molecular Genetics of Human Disease

  • Stephane Bourque - Canada Research Chair in Developmental and Integrative Cardiovascular Pharmacology

  • Qiumin Tan - Canada Research Chair in Molecular Genetics of Human Disease

  • Anastassia Voronova - Canada Research Chair in Neural Stem Cell Biology

Look for a story profiling their work soon.