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Three Sunnybrook Research Institute scientists awarded Canada Research Chairs

By Alisa Kim and Matthew Pariselli  •  Jun 17, 2019

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Dr. JoAnne McLaurinDr. Meaghan O’ReillyDr. Bojana Stefanovic

Drs. JoAnne McLaurin, Meaghan O’Reilly and Bojana Stefanovic recognized with country’s highest research honour

Three Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) scientists have been recognized with the country’s highest research honour, a Canada Research Chair (CRC). Dr. JoAnne McLaurin, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences; Dr. Meaghan O’Reilly, a scientist in Physical Sciences; and Dr. Bojana Stefanovic, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences, were announced chairholders on June 14, 2019.

“It’s an honour and a wonderful achievement for these scientists, each of whom is a leader in her field, to be recognized with a Canada Research Chair,” says Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at SRI and Sunnybrook. “I salute them and look forward to the discoveries they will make and impact they will generate,” he says.

Tier 1 CRCs are held for seven years and are for researchers viewed as world leaders in their fields. They can be renewed once and are worth $200,000 annually for seven years. Tier 2 CRCs are for emerging researchers recognized as having the potential to lead in their fields. They are held for five years, are worth $100,000 annually and can be renewed once.

McLaurin received a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Alzheimer Disease Therapeutics. In January 2018, she was part of a team that received $933,300 over five years from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to evaluate a treatment strategy for the disease. She says she’s “thrilled” that her work, and by extension that of her colleagues, trainees and technical staff, has been recognized with a chair. “The CRC Tier 1 [chair] will allow us to continue our research into understanding the role of comorbidities to the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as develop potential therapeutic interventions to tackle these detrimental interactions,” she adds.

Touching on the importance of chairs, McLaurin, who is also a professor in laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Toronto, says, “The CRC Program is vital to the success of Canadian research as a whole, as it highlights to the world the phenomenal research that is ongoing in Canada and our contributions to understanding both health and disease.”

McLaurin is collaborating with her colleague, Stefanovic, who was recognized with a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Neuroimaging. Stefanovic says she was “humbled” to learn of the award and is looking forward to working with McLaurin and other researchers on joint projects.

One project involves looking at a treatment strategy for Alzheimer’s disease that aims to balance the neuronal network through the conversion of astrocytes into inhibitory neurons. In people with Alzheimer’s disease, and in rodent models of the disease, inhibitory neurons are dysfunctional and ultimately lost. Many cognitive processes, including working memory, depend on an intact inhibitory network. This approach to balancing excitatory and inhibitory activity could prove to be superior to the use of drugs and stem cells to replace inhibitory neurons, which can have severe side effects.

“I feel extremely fortunate to be a part of an outstanding and highly collaborative group of imaging scientists, neurobiologist and clinician-scientists,” says Stefanovic, who is also an associate professor of medical biophysics at U of T.

“Advancing our understanding of brain function in health and disease is contingent on development and application of novel, sensitive and specific neuroimaging methods,” says Stefanovic.

Also hailing from Physical Sciences is O’Reilly, who secured a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Ultrasound. Her area of expertise is focused ultrasound, a noninvasive technology that uses sound waves to achieve a therapeutic effect, and its potential to deliver drugs to the spinal cord to treat tumours and other conditions. To explore this, she received a five-year grant from CIHR worth $673,200 in February 2019.

“I’m thrilled and honoured to receive the CRC,” says O’Reilly, who is also an assistant professor in medical biophysics at U of T. “It will raise the profile of my research program, enabling me to attract high-calibre trainees and staff to advance our work [on] developing new ultrasound therapies and [achieving] our ultimate goal of bringing these technologies to patients.”

As these new chairs take hold, Drs. Kullervo Hynynen, director of Physical Sciences at SRI and professor in medical biophysics at U of T; and Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker, senior scientist in Biological Sciences at SRI and chair of the department of immunology at U of T, end their terms as chairholders.

McLaurin, O’Reilly and Stefanovic join existing Tier 1 chairs Drs. David Andrews, Don Redelmeier and Graham Wright. Andrews, director of Biological Sciences, is interested in apoptosis, or programmed cell death, and its role in cancer. In a March 2019 paper, he showed how an interaction between proteins promotes cancer cell survival. He holds the Canada Research Chair in Membrane Biogenesis.

Andrews says his CRC is important because it demonstrates support from the government, but also peer-reviewed acknowledgement of his abilities and the value of his research. “This recognition provides an extra level of credibility that helps to open doors to collaborations with colleagues, institutions and industry partners. It also helps me attract top-notch trainees to my laboratory, and as a result, I am able to advance my research more rapidly, particularly in new directions,” says Andrews, who is a biochemistry professor at U of T.

Redelmeier, director of Evaluative Clinical Sciences, holds the Canada Research Chair in Medical Decision Sciences, which explores how people reason, formulate judgments and make decisions. His chair was renewed in 2017.

Wright’s chair was also renewed in 2017. The senior scientist in Physical Sciences holds the Canada Research Chair in Imaging for Cardiovascular Therapeutics. Reflecting on the significance of the award, Wright says that it has “served as the foundation of an effort to harness the power of MRI for guiding cardiovascular patient management, particularly image-guided interventions.” He also says the investment has “provided a sense of stability and a platform for long-term thinking in the development of my group's research efforts, which has been particularly appreciated in the past decade, during which the research funding environment has seen many challenges.”

Ensuring chairholders represent all Canadians in the research enterprise, the government underscored the importance of equity, diversity and inclusiveness. Within this, there was a focus on four designated groups: women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and members of visible minorities. This year’s competition results are composed of 47% women, 5% persons with disabilities, 4% Indigenous peoples and 22% visible minorities.

The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport, made the announcement, which encompassed the spring and fall 2018 competition rounds. More than $275 million will be invested in 346 new and renewed chairholders across 52 of the country’s research institutions. There are 1,836 Canada Research Chairs at Canadian universities.


In a nutshell

  • Drs. JoAnne McLaurin, Meaghan O’Reilly and Bojana Stefanovic were each awarded Canada Research Chairs.
  • As Tier 1 chairholders, McLaurin and Stefanovic will each receive $200,000 annually for seven years. Tier 2 chairholder O’Reilly will receive $100,000 annually over five years.
  • Their research aims to develop new treatments for brain disorders and spinal conditions.