Federal funding supports innovative research in Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry

Canadian Institutes of Health Research provides new granting model to provide funding to support groundbreaking research.


Five researchers from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry are taking their research to the next level, thanks to more than $9 million in foundation grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

These new and highly competitive grants, announced July 15 to Stefan Pukatzki in the Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology; Richard Rachubinski in the Department of Cell Biology; Richard Schulz in the Department of Pediatrics and the Department of Pharmacology; Toshifumi Yokota in the Department of Medical Genetics; and Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, also in the Department of Pediatrics, represent an investment in the future of medical research and discovery, says Alain Beaudet, president of CIHR.

“The new Foundation and Project Grants Programs will ensure that CIHR continues to maintain support for world-class health researchers and trainees, and their pursuit of innovative ideas and approaches in all areas of health research and knowledge translation,” he says. “The quality and excellence of the recipients of the inaugural Foundation Grants, including exceptional young researchers, and the breadth of the health research projects funded under the final Open Operating Grants Program competition, reflect our vibrant, talented and world-class health research community.”

CIHR provides funding opportunities for four themes of health research: biomedical, clinical, health systems services and social, cultural, environmental and population health. Applications are evaluated through a peer review process, and those recommendations are used by CIHR to make funding decisions.

Richard Rachubinski, chair of the Department of Cell Biology, will receive $3.14 million over seven years to study peroxisomes, cell compartments that perform important biochemical processes, notably in fat metabolism and the detoxification of reactive oxygen molecules like hydrogen peroxide. “Peroxisomes are essential for human survival, a fact underscored by the existence of fatal inherited disorders in which a patient's cells cannot make peroxisomes,” he says. “We use model organisms like baker's yeast and fruit fly to study how peroxisomes are made and translate these findings into treatments for patients with peroxisomal disorders, thus fulfilling the promise of basic research discoveries leading to improved health.

“The CIHR Foundation grant provides the financial resources and extended period of time required for us to pursue high-risk, high-reward research in peroxisome biogenesis that would be difficult to have supported under the usual CIHR funding mechanisms.”

Lonnie Zwaigenbaum is the director of autism research in the Department of Pediatrics and his grant of $1.58 million will help support the funding for a program of research examining the role of attention control and emotional regulation in the initial emergence of autism spectrum disorder, and whether targeting these areas of development through a novel intervention can improve outcomes or even prevent disability associated with the disorder. “We will also evaluate parents’ perspectives regarding how they would prefer to have concerns about their children communicated, and how they would like to be involved in early interventions,” he says. “We will work with our network of community partners to achieve the ultimate aims of our research program, to inform early diagnosis and intervention of ASD, and ensure scientific advances inform clinical practice.”

Toshifumi Yokota will receive $760,757 over five years to study neuromuscular diseases, which include more than 140 different conditions that involve weakness of muscles and/or numbness caused by muscle and nerve illness. “My overarching research program goal is to discover, optimize, and translate novel therapies, such as antisense oligonucleotide-mediated therapy, for neuromuscular diseases,” he says. Yokota, a muscular dystrophy researcher and the HM Toupin Neurological Science Research Chair, says, “My research program will have a broad impact beyond NMDs and provide opportunities for collaboration in the biomedical research field.”

Richard Schulz will receive $1.79 million over seven years to assist in his research in cardiovascular health and disease, in particular ischemic heart disease and heart failure. “Together my lab and my collaborators will translate this research program to understand intracellular matrix metalloproteinases (MMP) activation, localization, structure and activity to develop and test new therapies for treating heart disease, with fewer side effects,” he says. “Although my research will focus on heart disease, the outcomes should be broadly applicable and may lead to new and better treatments for inflammation, cancer and neurodegenerative disease.”

Along with the five medical researchers who received foundation grants, 14 health researchers from across the U of A received more than $8.9 million in transitional open operating grants.

One of the key components to the success of the foundation grant awardees was accessing the internal review offered through the Office of the Vice-President, Research, says David Evans, vice-dean, research, for the faculty. The funding rate for both foundation and operational grants was significantly higher when applicants took advantage of that opportunity.

“This was a long and challenging process and the awardees deserve both our thanks for sticking with it and our respect for their success in a highly selective competition,” says Evans. “I’d also like to thank the grants assist program, and the many voluntary reviewers, who helped University of Alberta researchers navigate this complex new process.

“Another competition runs this fall and I’d encourage everyone eligible to apply, to use the grants assist program, take advantage of the knowledge gained in this first round, and submit more applications.”