Dr. Alexandra King, Cameco chair in Indigenous health, is leading the two projects with an Indigenous focus.

U of S awarded $2.4M for Indigenous health care, stroke recovery and cancer research

Two Indigenous health initiatives are among four University of Saskatchewan (U of S) research projects awarded more than $2.4 million by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR).

“This major health funding will accelerate research into cancer, stroke, and infectious diseases such as HIV, improving the lives of patients and their families,” said Vice-President Research Karen Chad. “This funding success also underscores our commitment to community-based research and to incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing.”

Dr. Alexandra King, Cameco chair in Indigenous health, is leading the two projects with an Indigenous focus: studying the potential benefits of peer support for Indigenous women who have HIV or hepatitis C, and examining how to improve health and wellness in older Indigenous women living with HIV.

Saskatchewan has the highest rate of HIV in Canada––2.3 times higher than the national diagnosis rate, according to the provincial government. HIV and hepatitis disproportionately affect Indigenous peoples and in particular, Indigenous women.

In a $1.39-million study, King will examine the role of “peer navigator” support in helping Indigenous women living with HIV and hepatitis to better connect with, navigate and receive support from the health-care system. Peer navigators are individuals who have gained wisdom of particular conditions through lived experience, and who receive further training and education on health and related issues.

“Within most Indigenous communities, we put great value on wisdom gained through lived experience. Peer navigators relate to patients in ways that physicians and nurses or other health professionals cannot. It just makes sense to have peers involved in health care,” King said.

King’s other study will involve engaging older Indigenous women who are living with HIV to collaboratively create and implement a wellness pilot project based on their self-defined programming needs in five communities in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

“Indigenous health research long ago embraced many of the same principles that patient-oriented research now does, in that people with lived experience of a health condition are involved throughout. We’re incorporating culture and ceremony as part of the research process, so the research itself is healing for participants and for the researchers,” King said.

Microbiology and immunology researcher Linda Chelico will lead an $822,000 project to examine the activity of a particular family of enzymes that protect the body against viruses. The enzymes, when over supplied, may have a major role in DNA mutation in healthy cells, potentially leading to cancer.   

Chelico will determine in breast cancer cells whether the enzymes can be used to predict cancer outcomes, be targeted to block cancer starting or progressing, or be used to suppress cancer evolving.

Pharmacy and nutrition researcher Phyllis Paterson is using a rat model to examine how better, more protein-rich nutrition after a stroke can bolster recovery of the brain and leg muscles, as part of a combination of therapies.

Protein-deficient nutrition affects 20 to 35 per cent of patients one week post-stroke, and up to half of all patients during rehabilitation are protein-deficient due to challenges such as physical and mental disability, and difficulty swallowing.

In total, the CIHR grants will pay for 14 staff positions and funding of six graduate students and one post-doctoral fellow.

“To get CIHR funding is a great honour. This is huge, not just for me, not just for the team, not just for the University of Saskatchewan, but also for the communities we serve,” King said.