Aug. 1, 2019

Libin researchers receive $3.95M in CIHR project funding

Libin boasts 42% success rate in latest funding round

Researchers at the Libin Institute received a combined total of $3.95 million in project grants in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s (CIHR) spring 2019 funding round.

Libin researchers boasted a 42 per cent success rate, far above the national average of 15.6 per cent. In total, the federal funding agency handed out 382 grants and 21 bridge grants totalling $275 million.

Successful Libin researchers include doctors Robert Rose, PhD; Vaibhav Patel, PhD; Dana Olstad, PhD and Joon Lee, PhD; Leslie Skeith, PhD; and Xi-Long Zheng, PhD.

 Projects: Dr. Robert Rose

Rose, PhD, received a CIHR project grant of more than $1 million for his laboratory to study the role of natriuretic peptides in sinoatrial node dysfunction and atrial fibrillation (AF) in heart failure caused by high blood pressure.

AF and sinoatrial node disease often co-exist with heart failure and hypertension, leading to worsened outcomes and increased mortality in these common forms of cardiovascular disease. Yet there is little understanding of the mechanisms for AF and sinoatrial node disease in these conditions, and treatment options are severely limited. These challenges are central to Dr. Rose’s research program.

Rose explains this work is important because the rates of AF, as well as sinoatrial disease, are rising. Moreover, there is no cure for heart failure, and more than 50 per cent of heart failure patients die from cardiac arrhythmias.

The new five-year grant will help scientists in the lab to better understand what causes arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) in the presence of hypertension and heart failure, with the end goal of developing novel therapies by targeting the natriuretic peptide system.

Rose’s goal for studying natriuretic peptides, a family of naturally occurring hormones that have protective functions in cardiac tissue, is to understand exactly how they protect the heart. Researchers know that these peptides can have an impact on both structural changes in the heart, such as scarring, as well as electrical function of critical ion channels in heart cells, both of which can lead to arrhythmias.

The naturally-occurring peptides offer hope for the future.

Dr. Vaibhav Patel

Patel, PhD, received a CIHR project grant totalling $757,350.00 over five years.

Patel and his lab will use the funds to continue studying the endothelial colony forming cells (ECFC) found in human blood. These cells are believed to be the precursor to endothelial cells, which create the inner-lining of blood vessels.

The Patel lab recently revealed that ECFC reduce damage to the heart after heart attacks caused by lack of oxygen. The lab has shown that the reduced damage is caused by exosomes, nanoparticles released from the ECFC, which transport genetic material from cell to cell. These tiny particle have been shown to have a cardioprotective and regenerative effect on cardiomyocytes, the muscle cells found within the heart.

Over the next five years, scientists within the Patel lab will attempt to decode the genetic material and proteins found within the exosomes. Using mouse models after heart attacks, the lab will then determine an ideal dose and how best to administer exosomes and study the effects on the damaged hearts of the models.

Patel’s end goal is to find novel therapies for patients who have had a heart attack by limiting damage to the heart and improving tissue repair. By doing this, he hopes to cut down on the number of patients with heart failure, an incurable condition that can drastically reduce quality of life.

The lab will use diabetic models because diabetes, which impacts about 425 million people globally and is on the rise, increases susceptibility to cardiovascular conditions, including heart failure, a result of the death of heart cells during and following a heart attack.

The Patel lab is also considering sex differences, because women and men are affected by cardiovascular disease differently. For example, although males have more heart attacks than women, the short-term outcomes and prognosis are worse for women. Significantly, females with diabetes are at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease than males with the same condition.

Patel says colleagues within the Libin Institute and the Cumming School of Medicine were instrumental in his successful grant application. He adds the Libin’s new mouse echocardiogram—purchased with funds donated at the 2017 The Beat Goes on Gala—is also critical to his everyday work in the lab.

Dr. Dana Olstad and Dr. Joon Lee

Olstad, PhD, and Joon Lee, PhD, co-principal investigators of a research project, “Protecting children from unhealthy food and brand marketing in the digital age: A novel artificial intelligence system to assess food and brand marketing on digital media,” received a CIHR project grant of $725,770.

The work will allow Olstad, whose research centers around healthy food policy, and Lee, a big data scientist, to create the first Artificial Intelligence (AI) system capable of assessing the extent and nature of digital food and brand marketing.

The work is important because children’s food preferences and diet are influenced by unhealthy food marketing, which is pervasive online, a concern because of the amount of time kids spend online.

Despite the fact that unhealthy food marketing has been shown to adversely impact children’s diet and their overall health, there is little knowledge f the extent and nature of unhealthy food marketing onine. Moreover, today’s marketers are using AI to market these foods and brands to children.

According to Olstad, there is little knowledge about the extent of current marketing.

The researchers hope policymakers can use the AI system to monitor compliance with policies that restrict unhealthy food marketing to children online.

Other projects:

Skeith, MD, a clinical assistant professor, hematologist and blood clot specialist, received a $455,000 CIHR project grant for a multi-centre pilot project, pilot PARTUM trail, looking at postpartum women at risk of developing venous thromboembolism (VTE), which refers to a blood clot that starts in a vein. Skeith’s project will compare a placebo with acetylsalicylic acid (ASA), also known as Aspirin, for six weeks postpartum to prevent VTE. Women are at risk of developing VTE during pregnancy and postpartum, and the morbidity associated with VTE can be significant.

Chen, PhD, received a CIHR project grant for $948,000 for his project “Role of Smooth Muscle Autophagy in Aging-Associated Vascular Stiffness.” The project will look at the mechanisms of the smooth muscle cells (fund in veins and arteries) that cause arterial stiffening and aging-associated cardiovascular diseases. The goal of the project is to develop new drugs and treatments for aging-associated cardiovascular disease.