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Making the Cut

February 7, 2013

Dr. Cari WhyneDr. Jean GariépyDr. Graham Wright

By Alisa Kim

Scientists at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) had outstanding success in the latest Canadian Institutes of Health Research operating grant competition. The federal funding agency approved the proposals of a dozen SRI faculty and earmarked more than $4.3 million over the next five years in support of these projects.

"That so many of our scientists were funded in such a competitive setting—one in which most applications are rated ‘fundable,' yet only one in five is awarded—is a testament to the high calibre of their work," says Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at SRI and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research received 2,333 applications and approved 485, for a total investment of $240.7 million. At 27%, SRI's funding rate was above the national success rate of 21% and second-highest among the University of Toronto's affiliated teaching hospitals.

Studying how cancer affects bone

Dr. Cari Whyne, director of the Holland Musculoskeletal Research Program, and colleague Dr. Albert Yee, were awarded $720,465 over five years to study the behaviour of spinal metastasis, or cancer that has spread to the bony spine. Their aim is to understand the changes that affect the structural integrity of the spine and contribute to spinal fracture.

"We're trying to look down at a materials level, to understand how cancer affects the bone. If we can understand that, then we can look at treatments [to] address [it]," says Whyne.

They will also develop computer-based imaging tools that are better at depicting initial damage in bone so that spinal fracture can be avoided. "If we can deal with the metastasis and the quality of life issues that come from having tumours in your bone, and the pain and structural instability, then people [with cancer] can have a good quality of life while they're living longer because treatments are getting better," Whyne says.

Sleuthing for genes regulating our ‘internal clocks'

Dr. Andrew Lim, a scientist in the Brain Sciences Research Program, was awarded $446,488 over four years to identify the genes associated with sleep and circadian rhythms (the physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle).

He will outfit study participants with devices that track their movements. These data will tell him when participants are asleep, awake and moving. He will also collect DNA samples and look at points in the genome where DNA varies between individuals. "We're going to try and find these natural variants that are correlated with differences in real-world sleep and circadian behaviour. These variants will point to the specific genes involved in regulating these specific functions," says Lim.

Pinpointing the genetic basis of sleep and circadian rhythms could lead to the development of personalized treatments and strategies for sleep disruption caused by shift work or jet lag, for example.

Exploiting the power of an image

Dr. Graham Wright, director of the Schulich Heart Research Program, was awarded $562,215 over five years to develop methods for improved treatment of blocked arteries in the leg using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Wright's team is developing a technique that provides detailed pictures so that doctors can perform angioplasty (opening clogged blood vessels by passing a guidewire through the blockage) safely. "We will use MR sequences designed to characterize the blockages by spatially mapping relative hardness in the tissue. Lesions with softer pathways will be easier to cross with softer, and hence less dangerous, wires," says Wright.

His group will also refine its MR-compatible catheter system, which produces images ahead of the catheter, tracks the catheter's position and visualizes a guidewire used to cross blockages.

Other SRI researchers receiving funding:

Dr. Clare Atzema, a scientist in evaluative clinical sciences, was awarded $60,000 over one year. She will use the funds to do a follow-up study on care after a visit to the emergency department to assess the frequency and timeliness of care in patients with chronic disease.

Dr. Annie Bourdeau, a junior scientist in biological sciences, will receive $274,065 over three years to look at the role of a certain family of enzymes in the asthmatic response.

Dr. Peter Burns, a senior scientist in physical sciences, will receive $579,409 over five years to look at the use of ultrasound imaging to study mechanisms of resistance and adaptation to targeted anti-cancer therapies.

Dr. Stuart Foster, a senior scientist in physical sciences, will receive $414,316 over three years to study multifrequency ultrasound technology and their applications.

Dr. Rob Fowler, a senior scientist in evaluative clinical sciences, will receive $41,325 over two years to study variations in the incidence, prevalence and outcomes of critical illness among pregnant and postpartum women and newborns in Canada.

Dr. Jean Gariépy, a senior scientist in physical sciences, will receive $598,622 over five years for his work on the design and in-the-body delivery of new anti-inflammatory agents.

Dr. Jeffrey Kwong, an associate scientist in evaluative clinical sciences, was awarded a one-year grant worth $63,897 to study ethnic disparities in health care use for infectious diseases.

Dr. Baiju Shah, a scientist in evaluative clinical sciences, was awarded a one-year bridge funding grant worth $100,000 for his study on a possible link between gestational diabetes and early signs of diabetes-related complications in the eye and kidney.

Dr. Greg Stanisz, a senior scientist in physical sciences, will receive $540,084 over four years to assess a new MRI contrast mechanism to study tumour progression and response to therapy.

Dr. Cari Whyne