Funding: Nearly $10 million awarded in CIHR grants

Researchers from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry were awarded $9,933,800 in funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) for 13 studies making important contributions in diverse research areas.

The successful projects included investigations into genetic causes of intellectual disability, imaging tools for cell therapy, a COVID-19 treatment, and psychiatric assessments in long-term care homes.

Tracking therapeutic cells

Paula Foster, PhD, is one of five Robarts Research Institute scientists who received a CIHR grant. Foster, a Professor of Medical Biophysics, is researching magnetic particle imaging (MPI) techniques to track in vivo cells used in cell therapy.

“We are on the threshold of a new age of therapeutics. The therapeutic administration of immune cells (such as T cells or dendritic cells) and stem cells is now recognized as a safe and effective treatment for a growing list of diseases,” Foster explained.

“Despite its immense potential, clinical results have been variable and discordant because of disparities in cell source, preparation and route of administration and implantation methodologies. Currently, the only truly direct way to monitor the transferred cells is through an invasive biopsy; this is not desirable.” 

As part of the study, she is investigating different types of iron particles that can be used to mark the therapeutic cells, allowing for their effective tracking in the body using MPI. Foster is also developing a new MPI method, called multicolour MPI, which facilitates the imaging of two different types of therapeutic cells with different iron particles. Robarts Research Institute is home to the first and only MPI system in Canada, placing Foster in a unique position to investigate the capabilities of this technology. 

Ultimately, the goal of this research is to advance the limits of therapeutic cell tracking, providing clinicians a new tool to refine cellular therapies. 

Assessing suicide-risk in long term care

Another of the successful applications came from Martin Heisel, PhD, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatics and Psychiatry, for a study into suicide risk assessment in geriatric patients living in long-term care (LTC) homes. 

Older adults have the highest rates of suicide in Canada and worldwide, and a focused approach is needed to understand and identify suicide risk in this population, particularly in light of serious health care challenges in LTC setting highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The research literature supports my professional clinical and research experience that mental health training programs typically do not focus explicitly on suicide prevention, despite the fact that many trainees encounter clients or patients who are experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviour,” he said.

As part of his dissertation at York University, Heisel developed the Geriatric Suicide Ideation Scale (GSIS), an assessment tool specifically for measuring suicide risk and resiliency factors in these patients. Since then, Heisel developed the GSIS-Screen test, a condensed version of the test that is ideal for busy health care and LTC settings. This study will help evaluate the efficacy of employing that assessment tool and associated staff training in LTC homes. 

“We are not only answering the question of whether the GSIS-Screen reliably and validly assess suicide ideation in older adults, but also how well can LTC staff employ this tool to identify at-risk residents for whom they can provide effective and appropriate support,” Heisel said.

Congratulations to the successful CIHR Project Grant applicants:

  • N. Berube, PhD - Investigating the role of the astrocytic ATRX chromatin factor in memory processes
  • S. Cragen, PhD - Investigating the ATF4 Cellular Stress Response Pathway in Parkinson's Disease
  • Q. Feng, PhD - Annexin A5 as a treatment for COVID-19
  • P. Foster, PhD - Development of Magnetic Particle Imaging for In Vivo Cell Tracking
  • Dr. T. Gofton - The Neurologic Physiology after Removal of Therapy (NeuPaRT) Study
  • M. Grol, PhD - Immunomodulatory Gene Therapy Strategies for Post-Traumatic and Metabolic Forms of Osteoarthritis
  • M. Heisel, PhD - Screening for Suicide Risk among Older Adults in Ontario Long-Term Care Homes: Assessing the Prevalence and Correlates of Suicide Ideation in a Vulnerable Demographic
  • W. Inoue, PhD - Elucidating the cellular and network mechanisms for stress sensitivity control in the hypothalamus
  • J. McCormick, PhD - Novel vaccine antigens for Streptococcus pyogenes
  • M. McGavin, PhD - Investigations into sensing and metabolism of host lipids as a critical mediator of Staphylococcus aureus colonization and virulence
  • J. Ronald, PhD - Development of Molecular Imaging Tools to Monitor the Fate of an Off-The-Shelf Chimeric Antigen Receptor Natural Killer (CAR-NK) Cell Immunotherapy
  • D. Welsh, PhD - Reimagining O2 Demand-to-O2 Supply Coupling In the Microcirculation: Cellular Mechanisms to Disease Application
  • S. Whitehead, PhD - Evaluating the relationship between age-dependent white matter microglia activation and post-stroke cognitive impairment 

CIHR grants were also given to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry faculty for research studies conducted at the Lawson Health Research Institute. Congratulations to: 

  • S. Gill, PhD - Aging and exercise: impact on the pathophysiology of ventilation-induced lung injury
  • Dr. M. Weir - Filling Knowledge Gaps for the Success of Ontario Renal Plan 3