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Granted the means to advance novel health research ventures

By Matthew Pariselli  •  July 24, 2018

Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) scientists have received almost $9 million in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). One investment came through the 2017–2018 Foundation Grant competition, and nine via the Spring 2018 Project Grant competition. The work funded covers the health research continuum, from cells to health systems, across a swath of diseases.

“Congratulations are due to each and every researcher and their teams on their success in securing CIHR funding,” says Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at SRI and Sunnybrook. “This investment will advance our fundamental understanding of disease, help us to develop more precise treatments and address some of the biggest health challenges facing Canadians.”

Dr. Sandra Black, a senior scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences and the director of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program, was awarded a Foundation Grant worth $2,081,600. Black, who was responsible for corralling a team of about two dozen for this work, will continue her leading-edge research into dementia, with the ultimate goal of translating her findings into disease-modifying therapies. Her grant, which will be distributed over seven years, will enable her to expand the scope of her patient-centred work to include more assessment tools, such as blood-based biomarkers and autopsy information. It will also allow her to explore new treatment options, such as repurposing drugs that are used to lower blood pressure, to delay dementia and cognitive decline.

One of the largest Project Grants allocated to an SRI-led group went to Drs. Isabelle Aubert and Carol Schuurmans, senior scientists in Biological Sciences, and Dr. Valerie Wallace, a senior scientist at the Krembil Research Institute in Toronto. Their fund, worth $1,143,676 over five years, will be put toward research around age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition that leads to vision loss in people age 50 and older.

Working with Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, a senior scientist in and director of Physical Sciences, the researchers’ goal is to develop new gene and cell therapies for AMD, and then to evaluate if MRI-guided focused ultrasound can be used to deliver the therapeutics into the eye. “This will allow us to continue the AMD research program that was initiated with my Dixon Family Chair funds, and then supported with a grant to me, Kullervo and Isabelle from Medicine by Design for two years. This is a way to continue to develop the project more significantly,” says Schuurmans, whose interest is in the retina and neocortex.

For Aubert, who says she jumped for joy when she learned the team had been awarded the fund, this project is a foray into new territory. Her research centres on Alzheimer’s disease, and here she builds on the expertise she and Hynynen hold around the potential of delivering therapeutic ultrasound to treat it, as well as her knowledge of how ultrasound affects the brain. “There’s a blood-retinal barrier similar to the blood-brain barrier. What we want to do is enter that space with ultrasound and see how we can make an impact on the retina from what we’ve learned through our blood-brain barrier work,” she says. “It’s really cool, and I’m very grateful and thankful to be part of this team.”

When it came to writing the grant, Aubert says the “heavy lifter and unifier among the team members” was Dr. Yacine Touahri, a postdoctoral fellow in Schuurmans’ lab. For him, it was a valuable process. “This was my first experience with grant writing as a postdoc, and there were different challenges involved. I had to start from the rationale, so why is this work important? Then I addressed the question, found the tools, set up the experiments, predicted results and pitfalls, and then had it all reviewed by a panel,” he says. “When they were excited about our ideas and chose to support us with this fund, in a competition with so many applications, well, that’s very rewarding. I felt a lot of pride when I saw our ranking and read the reviewers’ comments.”

Eight other SRI-headed projects were awarded Project Grants:

  • Dr. Clare Atzema, a scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences, received $527,850 over three years to develop an online appointment scheduling platform for emergency departments that is designed to improve the transition between emergency and primary care.
  • Dr. James Carlyle, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences, was awarded $650,250 over five years to study the molecular evolution of self-nonself discrimination by paired NKR-P1 receptors, self ligands and viral immunoevasins.
  • Dr. Greg Czarnota, director of the Odette Cancer Research Program and a senior scientist in Physical Sciences, secured $795,600 over three years to investigate the effects of ultrasound-stimulated microbubble enhancement on tumour radiation response.
  • Dr. Jeffrey Kwong, an associate scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences, earned $202,725 over two years to investigate whether vaccines and statins reduce the burden of influenza in older adults. Kwong garnered the highest ranking of SRI applicants with his first-place position among the 64 applications in his committee.
  • Dr. Krista Lanctôt, a senior scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences, received $95,000 over two years to look at exercise as a primer for excitatory stimulation.
  • Dr. Farhad Pirouzmand and Dr. Damon Scales, a scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences, secured $2,314,126 over five years to execute a double-blinded randomized controlled trial on prophylaxis for venous thromboembolism in severe traumatic brain injury.
  • Dr. Louise Rose, a scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences, and Dr. Brian Cuthbertson, a senior scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences, along with colleague Dr. Srinivas Murthy, were awarded $165,000 over three years to carry out an international trial investigating the impact of a preventative antibiotic regimen on patient outcome and antibiotic resistance within intensive care.
  • Dr. Walter Swardfager, a scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences, was awarded $933,300 over five years to assess the neurocognitive effects of osteocalcin in Type 2 diabetes.

In the Foundation Grant competition 36 projects were approved, with an investment total of about $102 million. The average grant was worth about $2.8 million over seven years. More than 300 applications were submitted, for a national success rate of 12%.

As for the Project Grant competition, the CIHR distributed about $277 million through 369 Project Grants and 39 Bridge Grants. The average grant was worth about $740,000 over about four-and-a-half years. More than 2,600 applications were submitted. The national success rate was 14%, with SRI’s above that at about 18%.

In a nutshell

  • SRI scientists have secured about $9 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to carry out their work.
  • One project was funded in the 2017–2018 Foundation Grant competition, while nine earned support in the Spring 2018 Project Grant competition.
  • The grants will fund biological, imaging and clinical research into brain diseases, cancer and critical care, among other areas of dire need.