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Resounding approval

By Alisa Kim  •  January 25, 2018

Scientists at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) had a stellar showing in the Fall 2017 Project Grant competition held by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

The national funding agency approved 15 projects led by SRI researchers, for a total investment of $11.8 million. At 26%, SRI’s success rate was well above the national average success rate of 15%. More than 3,400 grant applications were submitted, making it the second largest competition in CIHR’s history.

“Once again, our scientists have shown the critical importance of the questions they are asking. Getting research funding is a formidable task, with the number of worthy proposals far exceeding the money available. These results speak not only to the excellence of our faculty, but to their hard work and determination,” says Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at SRI and Sunnybrook.

Among those who were successful is Dr. David Goertz, a scientist in Physical Sciences, who was awarded a five-year grant worth $776,475. He along with SRI scientists Drs. Kullervo Hynynen, Bob Kerbel and Meaghan O’Reilly are studying how to enhance cancer immunotherapy using ultrasound-stimulated bubbles. Goertz and colleagues have shown that focused ultrasound paired with microbubbles can improve the tumour-killing effects of an immune-checkpoint inhibitor. They will use liver tumours to investigate the mechanism of how this happens, and how best to exploit and control this effect.

Dr. JoAnne McLaurin, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences, says she was “ecstatic” to learn of her success and looks forward to being able to concentrate on “science, the projects and papers again” after an intense period of grant-writing. She will receive $933,300 over five years. She is working with SRI neuroscientists Drs. Carol Schuurmans and Bojana Stefanovic to examine 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.

“The premise of my grant is to form new neurons from glial cells in the memory centre of a preclinical model of Alzheimer's disease,” says McLaurin. She notes that several 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.

Dr. Eileen Rakovitch, a clinician-scientist in the Odette Cancer Research Program, was awarded a four-year grant worth $910,352. Her project is titled “DCIS-Precise: a genomics-driven model for predicting DCIS response to radiation.” She is looking at how gene expression in women with a type of breast cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) can be used to predict response to radiation therapy. The goal is to develop genomic biomarkers that predict the benefit of radiotherapy in women with DCIS. Such biomarkers would help to reduce unnecessary treatment in women with a low risk of disease recurrence. They would also serve to identify those with aggressive DCIS who will benefit from radiation, and those with radiation-resistant disease who will need other interventions to lower their future risk of breast cancer.

Dr. Bojana Stefanovic, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences, is the recipient of a five-year grant worth $918,000. Her project titled “Modulating peri-ischemic neuronal hyperexcitability” was ranked second of 38 applications in her committee. “We were exhilarated to learn of the results,” says Stefanovic. Using preclinical models of stroke she will study the peri-infarct zone, the damaged but potentially recoverable brain region surrounding the site of a stroke. With her colleagues she will modulate the activity of these neurons and monitor their function in the hours after a stroke, with an ultimate aim of enhancing recovery.

Two proposals by SRI scientists earned top marks by review panels. Dr. Astrid Guttmann, an associate scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences, submitted a grant that ranked first among 57 applications in her committee. She will receive $585,224 over four years for her work, which seeks to optimize Canada's health care for refugees. Dr. Baiju Shah, a scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences, was awarded $392,256 over three years. His project, which will evaluate the impact of improved access to drugs on the care, outcomes and costs of type 2 diabetes, ranked first of 51 proposals in his committee.

Nine other SRI scientists were awarded funding in the Project Grant competition:

Dr. Greg Czarnota, director of the Odette Cancer Research Program and senior scientist in Physical Sciences, was awarded a one-year bridge grant worth $100,000 to study the use of quantitative ultrasound for a priori breast cancer chemotherapy response prediction.

Dr. Stephen Fremes, a clinician-scientist in the Schulich Heart Research Program, will receive a one-year grant of $611,999 to conduct a randomized trial comparing the clinical outcome of single versus multiple arterial grafts.

Dr. Jean Gariépy, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences, was awarded $860,625 over five years. The grant supports the discovery and development of agents that block the VISTA receptor, an immune checkpoint on T cells, toward restoring antitumor immunity.

Dr. Paul Karanicolas, a clinician-scientist in the Odette Cancer Research Program, will receive $1,832,175 over five years to lead a randomized controlled trial that will evaluate whether tranexamic acid reduces perioperative blood transfusion in patients undergoing liver resection.

Dr. Patricia Lee, a clinician-researcher in urogynecology at Sunnybrook, was awarded $481,950 over three years to conduct a randomized controlled trial on laser treatment for stress urinary incontinence.

Dr. Greg Stanisz, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences, will receive $650,250 over five years. He will study saturation transfer MRI as a biomarker of tumour response to radiotherapy in patients with glioblastoma multiforme.

Dr. Cari Whyne, director of the Holland Musculoskeletal Research Program and senior scientist in Physical Sciences, was awarded $966,960 over four years. With SRI clinician-scientist Dr. Albert Yee, who is co-principal investigator on the grant, she will analyze changes to bone quality after cancer treatment, in particular, the impact of multimodal treatment on the skeletal stability of the metastatic spine.

Dr. Graham Wright, director of the Schulich Heart Research Program and senior scientist in Physical Sciences, will receive $791,775 over five years for his work on MR-guided management of occlusive peripheral arterial disease.

Dr. Burton Yang, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences, was awarded $990,675 over five years to study the role of circ-Itga9 in cardiac remodelling.

All told, the agency approved 512 research grants and an additional 33 bridge grants, for a total commitment of $372 million. In order to fund more projects, CIHR applied an across-the-board reduction of 23.5% to the budgets of funded applications. The average grant is $720,534 over a nearly four and half-year period.