Michael Chu - Improving cancer outcomes by predicting how patients will respond to specific therapies

Fourteen U of A projects receive funding to help solve clinical problems

ROSS NEITZ - 11 February 2019

University Hospital Foundation helps bright new ideas take flight

Fourteen U of A projects receive funding to help solve clinical problems

Promising health research at the University of Alberta is getting a much needed boost from the University Hospital Foundation (UHF). Fourteen research projects have received $481,000 in funding from the University Hospital Foundation Medical Research Competition (UHFMRC).

The competition provides seed grants to scientists with innovative research projects at the earliest stage to help solve real-world health problems. This year's funded projects include efforts to advance science in the areas of cancer, cystic fibrosis, transplantation and multiple sclerosis. See a snapshot of three promising projects below. Full results of the competition can be seen here.

Bradley Kerr - Exploring new targets for treating chronic pain in patients with multiple sclerosis

Many people with multiple sclerosis (MS) experience neuropathic pain, a chronic pain condition that is very different to other types of 'day-to-day pain' because it's a direct result of an injury or disease affecting the nervous system.

Bradley Kerr, an associate professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the U of A, is trying to find therapies for this condition.

"Neuropathic pain is notoriously difficult to manage and doesn't respond to most of the standard pain treatments," said Kerr, a member of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute. "Our project is aimed at identifying the cause of neuropathic pain in MS. By knowing what causes this type of pain, we'll be in a stronger position to develop new drugs and treatments."

Kerr and his team have recently discovered a molecule call microRNA 21 (miR-21) that may be linked to neuropathic pain. Their project aims to better understand miR-21's effects on sensory neurons that detect stimuli and send signals to the spinal cord and brain-potentially influencing pain response.

"The UHF funding is incredibly important to this project," said Kerr. "This is a new avenue of research for my lab and the UHF is providing us with the support necessary to develop this research."

Christine Webber - Accelerating nerve injury repair to improve surgery outcomes

Nerve endings relay to our brain much of the sensory information that helps us experience and process the world we live in. Heat, pain, pressure-all are felt because of our nerves. In turn, the brain relays movement instructions to our muscles along motor nerves. But for those who experience nerve injury, it can lead to muscle paralysis and the inability to feel their surroundings.

While an injured nerve has the capability to regrow, the speed is usually so slow that functional recovery is poor. Christine Webber, an associate professor of surgery at the U of A, is investigating ways to accelerate the rate of regeneration after a nerve injury to improve motor and sensory functioning.

"We know the baseline growth potential of a nerve once it has been cut, and we have discovered that electrical stimulation to a nerve prior to its injury greatly increases the rate of both motor and sensory nerve regeneration," said Webber, a member of both the Women and Children's Health Research Institute and Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute.

In her research, Webber and her team will examine the effect of electrical stimulation when taking a healthy uninjured nerve and attaching it to a previously injured one in animal models. She is hoping the findings will result in clinical applications for future surgical procedures.

"Our experiments mimic a common nerve injury and outline a clinically relevant means to repair this condition," said Webber. "If successful, our electrical stimulation paradigm can be used to promote nerve regeneration in any nerve repair surgery."

Since receiving the UHFMRC grant, Webber says her team has also been awarded major funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

"The University Hospital Foundation gave us the funding to support our preliminary data and we are extremely grateful as it's helped us be able to successfully compete for national awards."

Michael Chu - Improving cancer outcomes by predicting how patients will respond to specific therapies

Michael Chu's efforts are focused on helping patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) by creating a model that can predict which ones will respond to chemotherapy and which will respond to a new treatment called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy.

While many patients with ALL who receive chemotherapy will do well, some will relapse and require a stem-cell transplant. Relapsing again after a stem-cell transplant was previously an incurable situation, but recently CAR T-cell therapy-a new form of immunotherapy-has given patients hope by leading to long-term remissions in nearly half of the patients who receive it.

The therapy, however, is expensive-some pharmaceutical companies seek up to $500,000 per patient to make CAR T-cells for patients who are treated in the United States. The cost has led Canada's regulatory body to recommend the treatment not be funded until it becomes more affordable. It's a challenge Chu, a member of the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta, is tackling head on.

"We are developing and will soon launch a provincial CAR T-cell production and treatment study that can offer the therapy to relapsed acute lymphoblastic leukemia patients at nearly 1/10th the cost," explained Chu, an assistant professor of hematology and oncology at the U of A. "Even at that cost, CAR T-cells can have significant side effects, so predicting not only who responds best to CAR T-cells, but also who may end up with significant side effects would be ideal before an individual receives the therapy."

To test their models, Chu's team will use bone marrow samples from consenting patients and grow them in a 3-D culture system. The samples will then be exposed to a chemotherapy cocktail that simulates what ALL patients would actually receive in treatment. The results will then be compared to what happened in real life to judge how closely the team's system can model real outcomes.

"If our hypothesis holds true, then our experiments could be adopted as a standard pre-treatment screen to potentially save lives and health care costs while demonstrating the strengths of precision health," said Chu.

Meet our partner in innovation

Community support of the University Hospital Foundation's Medical Research Competition (MRC) has contributed $4.9-million in seed grants to some 250 peer-reviewed research projects at the University of Alberta Hospital, the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute and the Kaye Edmonton Clinic over the past 10 years. By providing critical funding at the earliest stage, the UHFMRC has given researchers critical support when they need it most―before they begin.