Sept. 30, 2020

Trio of vet med researchers secures $2.6 million in national funding competition

Canadian Institutes of Health Research Project Grants awarded to three biomedical research projects

Prion disease, opioid withdrawal, and how the brain enables limb movement are three areas of biomedical research recently awarded grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), totaling $2.6 million in funding.

The CIHR Project Grant program chose projects led by Drs. Sabine Gilch, PhD, Tuan Trang, PhD, and Patrick Whelan, PhD, all researchers in the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM).

“This is an outstanding achievement for UCVM’s internationally renowned researchers and their research and training programs,” says Dr. Baljit Singh, dean of UCVM. “The proposals from UCVM achieved a 50 per cent success rate compared to the national average of around 17 per cent in this current competition. This further underscores UCVM’s reputation as a unique research intensive veterinary medical faculty.”

Veterinary faculty awarded three human health-related grants

The federally funded grants are given to only the very highest calibre of human health-related scientific inquiry, so this trifecta of awards from a veterinary medicine faculty is a remarkable feat. It’s an achievement made possible through close collaborations between UCVM and the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), where the project leads hold affiliations.

The CIHR Project Grant program is designed to support ideas that have the potential to advance knowledge, research, health care, health systems, and health outcomes. The following projects received funding for the next five years:

Sabine Gilch

The CIHR awarded Sabine Gilch, pictured above, left, funding for her work targeting cholesterol in the brain to counteract prion diseases.

“Prion diseases are deadly and cannot be treated to date. They occur when normal brain proteins become infectious and change shape in a way that  forms clumps, killing neurons, which eventually leads to progressive brain damage,” says Gilch, an associate professor at UCVM and a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Prion Disease Research.

“The goal of our research is to understand the cause and consequences of increased cholesterol levels in brain cells that are infected with prions, and to use this knowledge for identifying new therapeutic targets for the treatment of prion diseases.”

A well-known form of prion disease is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (also known as mad cow disease), and the most common human form is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Gilch will investigate how high levels of cholesterol in prion-infected neurons affect transport mechanisms in the brain to better understand why brain cells die in the course of the disease.

She will also explore the use of an antiretroviral drug — a type of medication that inhibits reproduction of specific types of viruses, including HIV. This particular drug, in addition to its antiretroviral action, reduces cholesterol in neurons, which Gilch sees as a potential treatment for prion disease.

“Since we already have promising results with this drug, we are very excited to continue this line of research.”

Tuan Trang

Tuan Trang, pictured above, centre,  is an associate professor in the departments of Comparative Biology and Experimental Medicine in UCVM, and Physiology and Pharmacology in CSM, whose research aims to “unravel the great paradox of pain.” Trang’s team was awarded funding to study the causes of opioid withdrawal in partnership with the team of Dr. Gerald Zamponi, senior associate dean (research) CSM and Canada Research Chair. Their grant application was the top-ranked submission on the CIHR Pharmacology and Toxicology Committee.

“Opioid withdrawal is a significant medical problem and one of the main reasons for opioid reliance. It impacts many people attempting to limit or stop their opioid use, including those provided a prescription for chronic pain,” says Trang.

Interventions that reduce withdrawal can break this cycle of opioid use; however, Trang says existing non-opioid drug options are limited and cause severe side effects, while at the same time, not treating the symptoms of withdrawal very effectively. His team will address the need to understand why opioid withdrawal occurs, and how to alleviate it. They recently discovered that immune cells (microglia) residing within the brain and spinal cord play an important role in opioid withdrawal.

Patrick Whelan

Patrick Whelan, pictured above, right, is a professor of neuroscience at UCVM and CSM, and the Frank LeBlanc chair in spinal cord injury research. He will examine the complex brain mechanisms that enable walking.

“One of the major things we don’t know is how we select the type of movement and under what conditions,” says Whelan. “My work strives to understand how the brain engages in motivated behaviours such as walking towards food or escaping from danger.”

This is important, he says, since it has applications for people and animals with movement disorders. For example, for those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease there is an urgent need for new therapeutic targets. Whelan’s research has identified dopamine areas within the brain that could be used in those with movement disorders to reverse gait abnormalities.

Sabine Gilch is an associate professor, Department of Comparative Biology and Experimental Medicine, UCVM, adjunct associate professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, CSM, and a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI).

Tuan Trang is an associate professor, Department of Comparative Biology and Experimental Medicine, UCVM, and Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, CSM, and a member of Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) and HBI.

Patrick Whelan is professor and head, Department of Comparative Biology and Experimental Medicine, UCVM, professor, departments of Physiology and Pharmacology, and Clinical Neurosciences, CSM, and a member of ACHRI, HBI and the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health.

The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy drives solutions to our most pressing health challenges in disease and injury prevention, diagnosis, and treatments. Our biomedical engineering researchers make a significant impact in our communities by extending lives, improving quality of life, promoting independence, and continuously improving the health system.