Cross-discipline health research earns NSERC support
Funds through Collaborative Health Reseach Projects Program
Regis Dudley - October 3, 2012
Three Dalhousie projects tackling high-profile health crises were awarded funding last week through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada's (NSERC) Collaborative Health Research Projects (CHRP) Program.
Projects researching Alzheimer’s Disease, cancer and hearing loss all received funding. The projects are being led by Chemistry’s Mark Stradiotto, Pathology’s Graham Dellaire and Biomedical Engineering’s Rob Adamson.
Mark Stradiotto is working with Don Weaver and Canadian-based biotechnology company Treventis Corporation to create treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). The collaborative team seeks to develop drug-like molecules that stop the biological processes causing AD. Dr. Stradiotto’s group will use their expertise in catalyst design to develop streamlined routes to important target molecule classes. Treventis Corporation’s research group, led by Mark Reed, will use these catalytic methods to rapidly prepare structurally diverse libraries of new drug molecule candidates. Dr. Weaver’s group will test the molecules developed by Treventis Corp. for their effectiveness in treating the underlying causes of AD.
Drs. Stradiotto, Weaver and Reed have ambitious research objectives for the project. They will develop new methods to prepare the core structures of promising drug targets, screen hundreds of potential drug molecule candidates for biological activity, and optimize and enhance the potency and other important properties of promising drug molecule candidates toward commercialization. Dr. Stradiotto’s group’s novel catalytic methodology is key to this effort, as it enables rapid structural variation and optimization within a family of potential drug molecules. This would be impossible to achieve using conventional synthetic organic methods. The ultimate goal is to pinpoint the drug molecule structure that will effectively halt and reverse the progression of the disease. The project will establish a multidisciplinary platform for training in translational chemistry to address Alzheimer’s Disease, one of Canada’s greatest health challenges.
“Half a million Canadians currently have AD. Within a generation this number will more than double,” warns Dr. Stradiotto. “There is no remission in the progress of AD. There is no cure, and there are no disease-stabilizing drugs currently available. Clearly there is an urgent, unmet medical need for drugs that halt and reverse the progression of the disease. The solution to this problem will require input from multiple fields, working in collaboration simultaneously.”
Graham Dellaire’s laboratory studies the relationship between DNA damage and cancer development, as well as molecular mechanisms of chemotherapy and radiotherapy resistance in adult and pediatric cancers like leukemia. In collaboration with Jason Berman (IWK Health Centre), Dr. Dellaire’s research project uses zebrafish to develop a human leukemia and solid tumour xenograft animal model, called zebrafish XT.
“This project is a perfect marriage of basic and clinical science with the primary goal of translating our findings into clinical trials for this high risk disease,” says Dr. Dellaire. “The project illustrates how much more can be achieved when clinical and basic scientists work together toward a common goal.”
For the CHRP funded project, Drs. Dellaire and Berman are employing the zebrafish XT model to evaluate novel inhibitors of leukemia that affect both children and adults.
Zebrafish possess unique qualities that make them ideal test subjects. The fish share many of the same genetics as humans, but with the added benefit of being transparent as embryos. When primary patient samples are engrafted in the zebrafish, Dr. Dellaire’s lab can watch drug-tumor interactions in real-time.
Dr. Dellaire considers this research to be the next step in cancer treatment. The future of cancer, as Dr. Dellaire foresees, is a chronic but treatable condition. The zebrafish XT model allows researchers to compare normal and abnormal gene behaviour, and is contributing to a better understand of how gene development can go awry and become cancer.
The zebrafish XT model will provide compelling data on how Cancer cells respond to therapeutics. As the project develops, the zebrafish XT model will offer pre-clinical data to be used in Phase I clinical trials.
Robert Adamson and his team — with guidance from Manohar Bance, professor and acting head of Dalhousie Medical School’s otolaryngology division — have developed a new way to power implanted hearing aids. The technology uses sound waves transmitted outside of the body to power piezoelectric devices under the skin.
“As powered, implanted devices proliferate, we need new options to deliver power through the skin,” says Dr. Adamson. “Ultrasound has some key advantages in terms of size, efficiency and safety, and this grant will allow us to study its use in powering implants.”
In its first incarnation, Dr. Adamson’s device will be used to power an implant for patients with conductive hearing loss. Besides being invisible to the naked eye, the compact size of the technology will allow skin to grow over the implants and greatly reduce the risk of infection.
The project is expected to have huge clinical potential. While the lab is still in the early stages of designing the power delivery system for implanted hearing aids, implanted devices are increasingly being used to treat other disorders, and the ultrasonic power delivery system might one day play a role in powering them. Artificial hearts, neural stimulators to treat diseases like Parkinson’s, and retinal implants that can restore vision – all of these devices require that energy be delivered from outside to inside the body.
Dr. Adamson’s project has already attracted corporate support from Ototronix Inc.; the company will work with the Dalhousie team to commercially develop the technology. While the research team conducts additional R&D, Dr. Adamson anticipates patient trials to begin within the next two years.
The CHRP Program supports focused collaborative research projects involving natural sciences or engineering and the health sciences. Projects are new and lead to health benefits for Canadians, more effective health services and economic development in health-related areas.