|November 12, 1999||Volume 7, Number 6|
As President Peter MacKinnon sees it, theres no higher priority for the U of S over the next six months than to get ready to compete in the three new major research funding initiatives the second round of the Canada Foundation for Innovation grants, the 21st Century Chairs for Research Excellence Program, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
"How well we do in these three very important competitions will go a long way toward shaping the future of this university," he stresses.
If the research community is well positioned to take advantage of these tremendous new funding opportunities, it will be a great boost to the university and to the province.
"But if we end up with the crumbs off the table, we will be lagging behind, not just now but for some time to come," he warns.
Last week, federal Health Minister Allan Rock introduced legislation to create the CIHR, which would supplant the Medical Research Council (MRC) as Canadas main funding agency for health research starting April 1, 2000. The bill goes to second reading next week.
The CIHR is expected to transform the way health research is conducted in Canada. With a bigger budget than the MRCs (funding of nearly $500 million by 2001-02), it has a much broader mandate. In an effort to overcome barriers of discipline and geography, the CIHR will link researchers across a broad spectrum of fields through a network of "virtual institutes".
Research into the social, cultural and other factors that influence health will be an integral part of the institutes.
For instance, an institute on aging might carry out research on Alzheimers by linking biomedical, clinical, health services and population health experts across Canada.
"This new approach will help keep our best and brightest minds in Canada and create a vibrant environment that will recognize the importance of collaborative research for improving the health and well-being of Canadians and for building a high-quality health system," said Rock in a Health Canada release.
Barry McLennan, U of S assistant dean of medical research, is an appointee to the 34-member CIHR interim governing council charged with providing advice to Rock during the transition to the new way of doing health research.
"Its a very exciting time here now," said McLennan by telephone from Ottawa following the tabling of the legislation in the House of Commons.
"Theres a tremendous feeling of enthusiasm ... Theres broad general support from all political parties and from across the country."
The day after the legislation was tabled, a Presidents CIHR Task Force was struck at U of S to ensure researchers are ready to respond to the call for applications to the CIHR.
Chaired by Vice-President Research Michael Corcoran, the task force members include: McLennan, Valerie Verge (anatomy and cell biology), Louis Delbaere (biochemistry), Harley Dickinson (sociology), Liz Harrison (director of the School of Physical Therapy and chair of the Health Services Utilization and Research Commission), and Ron Labonte (director of the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit). Julia Taylor (director of Research Services) and I are ex-officio members. A representative from applied clinical research will also be appointed.
The task force expects to develop a plan that will include promoting awareness across campus of CIHR opportunities and mobilizing researchers to work collaboratively.
As well, the task force will propose a list of virtual institutes that might be formed nationally including some that would build on existing strengths at U of S and be headquartered here.
The CIHR interim governing council will soon be inviting university presidents, medical deans and teaching hospital directors across Canada to suggest the 10 to 15 institutes that will tackle the greatest health challenges facing Canadians. President MacKinnon will likely have to respond by mid-January.
Few faculty members are aware that the deadline for letters of intent for some CIHR funding programs is Jan. 17.
As one task force member stressed, "We have to wake people up immediately."
Researchers will notice a new face around the research office. Michele Vircavs, formerly of Computing Services, is the new secretary to Julia Taylor, Director of Research Services.
Please hold Jan. 21-22 on your calendar and plan to attend a major research symposium: "Building Research Success at U of S." Watch this space for more details.
Canaries in the coal mine
By Keith Solomon
Scientists have long studied the effects of pollution on wildlife. But a University of Saskatchewan researcher is taking things one step further using wildlife to monitor the overall health of the environment.
Biology Prof. Gary Bortolotti and a team of scientists are studying the effects of PCBs and other contaminants on the American kestrel, a small falcon. Their work has been funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Network of Toxicology Centres.
At McGill Universitys Avian Science and Conservation Centre in Montreal, Bortolotti has been feeding known quantities of PCBs to a flock of captive kestrels in order to measure the effects toxins have on coloration, immune function and breeding.
PCBs (polychlorinated biphenals) are a common industrial pollutant blamed for numerous health problems in humans and animals. Bortolotti said because PCBs and other toxins may mimic estrogen, they can disrupt the bodys hormone system, affecting immune response and reproduction. But these changes are often difficult to detect.
Bortolotti believes the evidence is apparent in the birds coloration.
"These kinds of traits are very sensitive to environmental changes," he notes. "In everything from habitat degradation to Chernobyl, these environmental perturbations or problems can be detected by looking at changes in the birds."
In their experiments with kestrels, Bortolotti and his team of researchers made a startling discovery. Normally, adult male kestrels have brightly colored faces ranging from light yellow to fiery orange, while females and juvenile birds are dull in color. When exposed to PCB contamination, however, coloration became reversed, with the females and juveniles becoming brightly colored and the males dull. Bortolotti believes this color reversal may also indicate deterioration in the birds health.
"There may be some very subtle changes going on there that could have devastating effects on wildlife populations, and that could be very difficult to detect otherwise," he said.
"Its not implausible that all a contaminant has to do is disrupt that coloration, and it may mean the birds dont breed. And if they dont breed, their populations crash. But sometimes you have populations crashing and you dont know why."
Bortolotti said "bio-indicators" such as coloration can help us understand the effects that pollution and disease have on birds. He said coloration plays an important social role in birds.
"Its long been known that male birds use their bright colors and plumage as a way of attracting females," he said. "But were now beginning to realize that theres a direct connection between a birds plumage and its overall health."
By showing off their colors, the male birds arent simply trying to attract the females attention. Theyre also telling her theyre free of disease, Bortolotti said.
"Its a lot more complicated than we used to think," he added.
Bortolotti believes the connection between a birds coloring and its health comes via carotenoids, pigments which are found in various foods. Carotenoids affect coloration and are also vital for maintaining a strong immune system. Since both are linked through carotenoids, its not surprising that the birds state of health would be reflected in its coloring and that poisoning from PCBs or other toxins would make itself apparent in this way as well.
Bortolotti believes the link between a birds coloration and its health holds great potential for keeping tabs on pollution.
"This is one way were able to use wildlife to monitor the overall health of the environment," he said.
"Its truly the classical canary in the coal mine."BACK TO TOP
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