Five winners of prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Five Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry students have been named recipients of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, Canada's most prestigious scholarship for doctoral students.
Launched in 2009 to attract and retain world-class doctoral students, the program helps establish Canada as a global centre of excellence in research and higher learning. The scholarship, worth $50,000 per year for three years, is available to both Canadian and international PhD students studying at Canadian universities.

In total, 167 Vanier scholars were announced across Canada, including eight at Western University, each selected based on his/her demonstrated leadership skills and high standard of scholarly achievement in the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, engineering or health sciences. Western's eight winners are the most the university has ever received.

Vanier scholars are nominated by a Canadian university and nominations are then evaluated by selection committees administered by Canada's three research granting agencies: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

"Being awarded a Vanier is no easy feat. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication involving supervisors, faculty reviewers, program administrators and School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies staff," says Linda Miller, vice-provost (Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies). "Our graduate student body produces excellent research across several disciplines, and I am very proud that we were recognized with our most ever Vanier awards this year. Most importantly though, this honour rests with these eight students and their remarkable research talents, to which I extend my fullest congratulations."

Schulich Medicine & Dentistry's honourees include:

Photo by Wesley Moir

Adrienne Elbert
Biochemistry and Pediatrics, MD/PhD candidate
Determining genome-wide binding changes of epigenetic regulators CTCF and cohesin in ATRX-knockout mouse brain

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes to gene regulation by mechanisms other than DNA sequence, such as DNA packaging and organization. Elbert's study will investigate the role of the epigenetic regulators CTCF and cohesin in the developing brain using a mouse model for an intellectual disability called ATR-X syndrome and a forebrain knockout mouse of the CTCF gene. We hypothesize that loss of epigenetic modifiers like ATRX and CTCF result in deregulation of genes required for normal brain development.

Intellectual disabilities like autism, Rett syndrome and ATRX syndrome affect 2-3 per cent of children, which is approximately 140,000 children in Canada. Recent research shows that genes mutated in intellectual disabilities are often epigenetic regulators that impact gene expression in the brain. However, the role of these genes in brain function is poorly understood.
This project hopes to improve the life of Canadians by increasing the understanding of epigenetics in brain function as well as epigenetics in intellectual disabilities, in order to improve treatment and diagnosis of children with these disorders.

Photo by Wesley Moir

Matthew Meyer
Epidemiology and Biostatistics, PhD candidate
Testing the Impact of Resource Availability on Patterns of Referral to Inpatient Stroke Rehabilitation in Ontario

Meyer's research focuses on the role policy decisions (specifically resource allocation) play in the accessibility of rehabilitation services for people who experience a stroke in Ontario. He has been fortunate to have the opportunity to work collectively with his supervisory committee at Western, the Ontario Stroke Network, the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Together, the team works to develop methods to assess how many patients aren't able to access the rehabilitation services they need after a stroke, or are referred to services that are inappropriate for their needs. They are then looking at how regional variations in rehabilitation resources may be contributing to these challenges.

Meyer hopes his research will ultimately lead to better informed decisions about resource allocation. While his initial goals are to help improve the accessibility of appropriate rehabilitation services post-stroke, he also hopes these methods for evaluation can be adapted in other sectors of our healthcare system.

Photo by Wesley Moir

Krista Vincent
Anatomy and Cell Biology, MD/PhD candidate
The functional and clinical consequences of silencing a candidate tumour suppressor gene in melanoma

The relationship between stem cells and their microenvironment remains complex and still largely enigmatic, despite the crucial role it plays in determining cellular fate. Pilot studies conducted in Vincent's lab have identified secreted frizzled-related protein-2 (sFRP2) as a major constituent of the stem cell-derived extracellular matrix. This finding is compelling because although the role of sFRP2 in stem cell biology has not been fully elucidated; current information suggests it may regulate stem cell phenotypes and play a role in cancer biology.
Given the putative roles of sFRP2 in regulating self-renewal and differentiation, the aim of her project is to elucidate the role sFRP2 plays in melanoma tumourigenicity and microenvironment-mediated reprogramming.

Though the biologic similarities between aggressive tumour cells and embryonic stem cells are striking, the true therapeutic potential of these discoveries lies in the differences between these cell populations. The absence of certain inhibitors in tumours, such as sFRP2, presents appealing interventional opportunities. The findings of Vincent's research will help define the melanoma phenotype and have the potential to provide a previously unknown molecular target for directed therapies.

Photo by Wesley Moir

Susan Huang
Medical Biophysics, MD/PhD candidate
Cystatin C: A New Marker for Dialysis Adequacy

Dialysis is a supportive therapy in patients with minimal kidney function and helps by removing toxins and extra fluid. To determine the dose of dialysis, blood levels of specific proteins are measured before and after dialysis. Because patients with some kidney function - despite being on dialysis therapy - live longer than patients with no kidney functions, it is important to preserve and to monitor kidney function. Traditionally, routine monitoring of kidney function requires patients to collect a 24-48-hour urine sample which is cumbersome for patients.

Cystatin C is a protein that has shown to be better at estimating kidney function in patients who are not on dialysis; however, there are very few published studies in dialysis population. Huang's recent study suggests cystatin C is removed by dialysis. This means cystatin C may not provide a reliable estimate of kidney function in dialysis patients without taking into account the dialysis dose.

Huang will conduct four novel studies to determine the relationships between dialysis treatments, kidney function and cystatin C levels. These projects will serve as the basis for larger studies in the future and may help the care and monitoring of dialysis patients.

Photo by Wesley Moir

Daniel Langohr
Biomedical Engineering, PhD candidate

Biomechanics of Reverse Shoulder Implants with Special Interest in Impingement and Wear
Reverse Total Shoulder Arthroplasty (RTSA) is used to replace a damaged and/or arthritic shoulder joint when accompanied by rotator cuff tears to alleviate pain and restore function. At early follow-up, good-to-excellent outcomes can be expected in most patients. However, progressive deterioration in function of these implants is observed after six-eight years.

In order to improve RTSA prostheses, Langohr's work includes computer modelling and laboratory testing of these devices in-situ in an effort to determine optimal implant positioning and geometry. His MASc work at the University of Waterloo included the wear testing of orthopaedic bearing materials for use in the spine, and based on his past experience in this area, Langhor will be creating a wear laboratory at the Hand and Upper Limb Centre (HULC) at Western. The aim of this new laboratory will be the in-vitro wear testing of RTSA components using a wear simulator to mimic the motion and loading of the shoulder.

This research aims to improve the outcome of RTSA through the development and optimization of implant positioning, geometry and bearing material selection. This could defer the time at which deterioration in function of these devices occurs clinically and improve implant performance in patients.