Six FoMD researchers named as new Canada Research Chairs

Ryan O'Byrne - 16 December 2020

As the Government of Canada celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) Program, six Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry members have been named as the newest CRCs.

Established in 2000, the Canada Research Chairs Program 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.

Here are the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s newest Canada Research Chairs.*

Maria-Beatriz Ospina

Assistant professor, Departments of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Department of Medicine
Member, Women and Children's Health Research Institute
Canadian Research Chair in Life Course, Social Environments, and Health

Common complex diseases such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, diabetes and mental problems are the leading cause of death among people aged 30 to 69 years worldwide. One of the main challenges for timely prevention and treatment of these diseases is understanding their complexity and influences throughout a person’s lifespan. Ospina’s research program focuses on social and other health determinants, during pregnancy and in the first years of life, which shape future health in both mother and child. This research will make unique contributions to identify the most sensitive periods for interventions, to maximize their effectiveness and improve health.

“I am very grateful to the Government of Canada and the Canada Research Chair Program for this great opportunity,” said Ospina. “We have so much work ahead of us to better understand the influence of social and physical conditions during critical periods of human life; how these ‘external’ factors get ‘under our skin,’ and how can we design effective interventions to tackle health inequalities that start early in life and that extend through the lifespan.”

Patrick MacDonald

Professor, Department of Pharmacology
Member, Alberta Diabetes Institute
Canadian Research Chair in Islet Biology (Tier 1)

MacDonald has moved from a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Islet Biology to Tier 1, which is a seven-year term as opposed to five, and is reserved for researchers who have been acknowledged by their peers as world leaders in their fields. His work focuses on gaining a better understanding of the pancreatic islets of Langerhans cells, which make insulin and other hormones that are crucial for the control of blood sugar and metabolism. The impaired function, or autoimmune destruction, of pancreatic islets underlies almost all forms of diabetes.

In studies ranging from genetic mouse models to human tissue banking, MacDonald’s efforts will focus on characterizing how islets compensate for metabolic stress and how they fail in diabetes. His lab will link functional and molecular phenotyping of single cells and whole tissues to better understand the disease. A unique human-tissue biobank, which MacDonald directs, will support this work and provide a resource for the research community worldwide. Leveraging a large network of collaborators in genomics, informatics and other fields, MacDonald and his team are defining new knowledge and approaches to diabetes prevention and treatment.

“I’m thrilled to have been selected as a Canada Research Chair, which is really a reflection of the outstanding team that I’ve worked with for many years now,” he said. “This will help push our work on diabetes and insulin forward, which is timely given that next year is the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin—in which the U of A’s J.B. Collip played an important role. My hope is that we can continue the strong tradition of Canadian diabetes research.”

Jesse Jackson

Assistant professor, Department of Physiology
Member, Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute and Women and Children’s Health Research Institute
Canadian Research Chair in Neural Circuits

Many aspects of brain organization remain a mystery. It is still unclear which parts of the brain participate in normal functions such as episodic memory, or in pathological states such as generalized anxiety. Knowledge of the cell types in the brain, how cells are connected into neural circuits and how these connections lead to efficient communication between brain regions is essential to inform treatments for disease states that target specific neural populations.

In 2018, Jackson opened the Brain Cells and Circuits Laboratory at the University of Alberta. The laboratory uses anatomical tracing, electrophysiology and neuroimaging to determine the cellular and physiological substrates underlying the connections between brain regions and how these connections support brain functions such as memory. One aim of the laboratory is focused on determining the function of a small region known as the claustrum. Cells in the claustrum communicate densely with the parts of the brain controlling emotion and memory and have receptors that are targeted by antidepressants and hallucinogenic drugs. It is unclear what role this region plays in normal brain function. Jackson and his team will seek to provide insight into the organizational principles of this mysterious part of the brain.

Glen Jickling

Associate professor, Department of Medicine
Member, Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute
Canadian Research Chair in Genomics and Genetics of Stroke

Ischemic stroke is a leading cause of adult disability and mortality. There are more than 50,000 strokes per year in Canada and every day, over 140 Canadians suffer a stroke and are left with neurological deficits that require long-term rehabilitation, which often prevents a return to work. Despite recent advances in acute stroke treatment, novel methods to better treat and prevent stroke are desperately needed.

Jickling’s translational research program is dedicated to improving our understanding of and ability to treat patients with stroke. He employs a multipronged approach, which includes developing personalized molecular tools to improve stroke diagnosis and developing novel therapies to reduce the impact of stroke. Jickling points out that no two stroke patients are the same, with each patient having differences in type of brain injury, response to vascular risk factors, cause of stroke, risk for complications and response to treatment. As a result, Jickling is also studying the relationship between a patient's genes and this variation in stroke. He hopes to better prevent and treat stroke by understanding how a person’s genetic makeup programs their genomic response to vascular risk factors, contributes to injury following an acute stroke and aids therapies used to treat stroke.

“It is a tremendous honour to be selected as a CRC,” Jickling said. “The supported research program will lead to novel precision-based biomarkers to improve the care of patients with stroke and novel treatments specifically targeting immune-thrombus interactions that cause stroke and promote brain injury.”

Anna Taylor

Assistant professor, Department of Pharmacology
Member, Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute
Canadian Research Chair in Pain and Addiction

Approximately one-third of Canadians suffer from chronic pain, making it the most common form of chronic illness in Canadians under the age of 60. Chronic pain is difficult to treat and physicians often resort to opioids to manage it, which has led to Canada being the second largest per capita consumer of prescription opioid drugs in the world.

As the new Canada Research Chair in Pain and Addiction, Taylor is working to better understand the mechanistic underpinnings driving the transition from acute to chronic pain. Her research program explores how changes in brain circuitry contribute to the long-term duration of pain and whether they alter the rewarding and pain-relieving effects of opioids. She explores strategies to improve the analgesic efficacy of opioids while minimizing the likelihood of abuse. Finally, she studies novel non-canonical opioid binding chemicals to treat pain with lower risk of abuse. Discoveries made in this research program will provide guidance for the safe and effective use of opioid therapies, develop novel non-addicting chronic pain treatments and identify novel approaches to manage opioid use disorder.

“It is a great honour to have been selected for a Canada Research Chair for my research on
chronic pain and opioid addiction,” Taylor said. “The past year, we have seen an alarming acceleration in the opioid overdose epidemic, highlighting the urgent need for more effective treatments for opioid addiction and chronic pain. My research will further our understanding on how pain and opioids change the brain and offer solutions to these public health emergencies.”

Sue Tsai

Assistant professor, Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology
Member, Alberta Diabetes Institute; Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology; and Women and Children’s Health Research Institute
Canadian Research Chair in Immunometabolism

Obesity has reached pandemic proportions worldwide. It is one of the most important risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases and is also linked to a number of other comorbidities, including increased risks of developing severe respiratory infections and certain types of tumours. As a result of obesity, tissues and cells can reach a heightened inflammatory state, which can cause them to become insulin resistant, impacting the regulation of blood glucose levels as well as numerous cellular processes including cell growth and proliferation.

Tsai is fascinated by cross-talks that occur between the metabolic and immune systems and how they are altered during the obese state. She aims to understand how these cross-talks become dysregulated during metabolic processes and the resultant impact on the immune system. Tsai is particularly interested in the role of insulin in modulating the adaptive arm of the immune system, as she has recently found that adaptive immune cells, such as T-cells, are responsive to insulin, and that this responsiveness is important for optimal immune function during an infection.

As Canada Research Chair in Immunometabolism, Tsai is leading a research team to study the underlying mechanisms of immune dysregulation during obesity, using preclinical models of cancer and H1N1 influenza infection. Her research approach involves dissecting how immune cells utilize nutrients to support their function during healthy and disease states, with the goal of uncovering new ways of improving immunity.


*Unless otherwise noted, all new Canadian Research Chairs are Tier 2