Scientists receive funding for high-risk, high-reward projects

Three Faculty of Science researchers receive funding through the New Frontiers in Research Fund.

Katie Willis - 19 December 2019

Three research projects in the Department of Chemistry were awarded funding from the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF), a tri-council initiative. NFRF funding is designed to support high-risk, high-reward research for early-career scientists.

Learn more about the Faculty of Science researchers and their projects below.

Accelerating innovative drug discovery

Florence Williams, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, will receive $250,000 over the next two years to support research on drug discovery. Hear more from Williams.

How will this funding support your research?

This funding is absolutely critical to supporting this research. With this funding, my collaborator Jonathan Epp from University of Calgary's Hotchkiss Brain Institute and I are able to pay for both research staff and supplies. Moreover, the funding allows us to perform more insightful biochemical analyses due to funding for biochemical supplies, such as various antibodies to detect and quantify particular biomarkers.

What outcomes are you hoping for after the two years have completed?

I anticipate that we will have discovered the major signal transduction pathway that is operative when neuron cells are exposed to the neurotrophic small molecules we are studying. This will help us gain knowledge on how cells in the brain can be triggered to resist degradation in the face of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. This information will be highly informative for future medicinal strategies to combat these illnesses.

How is the University of Alberta uniquely positioned to push this area of inquiry further?

Our lab is uniquely suited to tackle these questions. We are a synthetic and chemical biology lab, which means that we are able to synthetically access the small molecules we wish to study as well as modify these molecules strategically to provide information on what structural elements are important for the neuroprotective response.

Moreover, as a chemical biology lab, we perform our own cell culture assays and many biochemical tests to understand protein function and signal transduction. The University of Alberta further supports these investigations through the impressive shared resources and facilities available to us within the chemistry department and in sister departments such as biological sciences, neurology, and medical microbiology.

Giving life a new backbone

Matthew Macauley, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and investigator with GlycoNet, received $250,000 for his work on gene editing. Macauley has partnered with Julianne Gibbs, associate professor of chemistry, whose lab brings expertise in nucleic acid chemistry. Hear more from Macauley.

How will this funding support your research?

The funding will help drive a high-risk, high-reward project using nucleic acid chemistry for new applications. The biological applications made possible by the nucleic acids being synthesized in the project will be innovative and something that our lab is well-positioned to investigate.

What outcomes are you hoping for after the two years have completed?

There are three tangible outcomes. The first is that our new approach will allows us to stitch together genetic information in a way that is very unique and innovative; this is at the heart of the project and will be interesting to many scientists from a basic perspective since DNA/RNA is the blueprint to life.

Second, this ability will, in turn, open up new capabilities in biology, such as gene editing. Indeed, the approach will greatly accelerate research in our lab aimed at making gene editing more high-throughout and multi-dimensional. We are confident that this ability to accelerate research will be something that many labs around the world are also excited by.

Third, we anticipate that there will be intellectual property that would arise from this project.

How is the University of Alberta uniquely positioned to push this area of inquiry further?

An amazing team has been assembled to get at the central high-risk, high-reward idea. The Gibbs lab are experts in nucleic acid chemistry and will greatly assist in these efforts. We are also being aided by two collaborators in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. Basil Hubbard is a world expert in gene editing and will provide invaluable advice on applications of gene editing as well as the nuts and bolts of how it works.

A second collaborator that we have engaged is Gary Goldsand, director of UAlberta's John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre. He is eager to engage in discussions about the bioethics of gene editing, especially in light of recent rogue efforts to do so in humans. Our lab works at the interface of chemistry and immunology, and we are excited about the vast applications that will be opened up by this new ability to stitch together genetic information.

Designing catalysts for a sustainable future

Vladimir Michaelis, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, will receive $250,000 for his work in identifying and retooling catalyst to power a more sustainable future. Hear more from Michaelis.

How will this funding support your research?

The funding is a critical junction to support an exciting initiative in decoding the complex structure of porous catalysts that we hope will provide an ability of a structure-function roadmap for innovative applications. This funding will catalyze the expansion of our research program and direction providing support for undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral researchers to utilize dynamic nuclear polarization (DNP) to explore porous catalytic materials in efforts to provide a feedback loop enabling an ability to tailor efficiency, selectivity and robustness. I'll be working closely with Yuriy Román-Leshkov, associate professor at MIT and expert in chemical engineering.

What outcomes are you hoping for after the two years have completed?

What I hope we will be able to provide is an ability to demonstrate effective DNP approaches that can be readily applied in order to solve some of the most complex puzzles in porous catalytic materials. Secondly, we hope to identify key markers where catalytic metals are inserted within a porous framework and how this impacts their application that span many industries such as chemical, carbon capture, petrochemical, agriculture, water purification, etc. The next two years are truly just the beginning for us on this journey that will provide the groundwork to push this area for the next decade while building further global collaborative networks.

How is the University of Alberta uniquely positioned to push this area of inquiry further?

Our group at UAlberta is the only institute in Western Canada to be equipped with DNP NMR infrastructure that is a vital component for the essential structural elucidation in these materials.