Dr. Michael Levin, inaugural chair in Multiple Sclerosis Clinical Research at the U of S

U of S researchers awarded 12 SHRF Collaborative Innovation Development grants

Neurologist Dr. Michael Levin, inaugural Chair in Multiple Sclerosis Clinical Research at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S), is among 12 U of S researchers awarded Collaborative Innovation Development grants by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF) for 2017-18.

By University Communications

Levin and co-applicants Josef Buttigieg, a neurophysiologist at the University of Regina (U of R), and Gillian Muir in the U of S Department Of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences, were awarded $50,000 for research to develop “A novel therapy that attacks the pathologic immune response in multiple sclerosis (MS).”

They have developed and are testing a new drug designed to stop the body’s auto-immune response (white blood cells) from attacking the myelin coating on nerves in the brain and spinal cords of MS patients.

Their new drug molecule has three pieces. The first is myelin. The second is a protein that enables the drug to get into a cell. The third part of the tri-molecular complex kills the cell.

“The trick is designing a medication that only attacks the bad immune cells and leaves the good ones alone. This is important because all the current MS medications don’t do that,” said Levin.

“Our hope—we’re testing it on an animal model—is that we inject the drug and it can really hone in on just the pathologic white blood cells. We think it’s a very, very specific way to attack not all the white blood cells in people’s blood or the brain, but just the ones that cause MS.”

The SHRF grant is exciting and sets the groundwork for establishing a province-wide vision for MS research and care, said Levin, adding that networking with the U of R is a great start.

“This kind of grant is extraordinarily important to patients and to the province, which has among the highest rates of MS in Canada and the world,” he said.

“This is brand new technology—what we call ‘high-risk’ in science. This kind of early funding allows us to fund the project for about 12 to 15 months, giving us enough money and enough preliminary data to write to the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, or the MS societies or other national societies for more substantial funding,” Levin said.

SHRF Collaborative Innovation Development grants provide seed money to support interdisciplinary research activities that represent the first steps toward pursuit of more comprehensive funding. In addition to Levin’s project, SHRF awarded grants to 11 other U of S research projects:

Xiongbiao (Daniel) Chen, mechanical engineering ($50,000): Bone defects represent a common cause of reduced quality of life and inability to work in Saskatchewan. Chen and team members David Cooper, Brian Eames, Ali Honaramooz, J.D. Johnson and Nitin Sharma are researching the development of novel 3-D printed bone substitutes (scaffolds) that incorporate biomaterials as a way to restore permanent bone function. The project will also focus on developing non-invasive synchrotron imaging technology to track bone regeneration in scaffold-treated animal models.

Graham George, geological sciences ($50,000): Chelator treatment to remove metal accumulation in the body has shown temporary improvement in the cognition and memory of dementia patients, but its efficacy is now in doubt. George and U of S co-applicants Kelly Summers, Oleg Dmitriev, Ingrid Pickering and Eric Price intend to bring clarity to the issue by showing quantitatively whether metal levels are elevated in AD plaques (abnormal clusters of protein fragments built up between nerve cells) and by how much, and whether chelator treatment modulates metal levels. They are using innovative synchrotron-based techniques and positron emission tomography (PET) to study metal and plaque location in mouse models. The findings could help researchers understand more about AD and possible treatments.

Clarence Geyer, College of Medicine ($50,000): The surface of many solid tumors express a protein known as an epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). The current process to confirm the presence of EGFR is unreliable in one-third of cases and isn’t helpful in surgical planning to remove tumors. Geyer and co-applicants Humphrey Fonge and Rajan Rakheja have developed a molecule with unique binding properties that enables the creation of imaging and therapeutic agents for EGFR-positive cancers, and facilitate image-guided surgery and PET imaging.

Dr. Gary Groot, College of Medicine ($49,960): Groot and co-applicants Donna Goodridge, Joshua Lloyd, Zane Tymchak, Thomas Rotter, Terry Blackmore and Leigh Kinsman are aiming to optimize the implementation of clinical pathways (CPWs) by Saskatchewan physicians. CPWs are document-based tools that provide physicians with evidence-based recommendations to manage specific medical conditions. The team is developing an innovative, theory-based research survey tool to investigate potential barriers and factors that facilitate the use of clinical pathways by family doctors. The research will help future CPW implementation in Saskatchewan.

Lorraine Holtslander, College of Nursing ($49,046): Noting the invaluable role of family caregivers in the health system, Holtslander and co-applicants Shelley Peacock, Megan O’Connell and Kristen Haase are aiming to develop an Internet-based smartphone tool that will support and help caregivers. An interdisciplinary team in nursing and psychology will collaborate with the Saskatoon Council on Aging and Refresh Enterprises, a local application developer, to develop and test an app that helps to build a community of caregivers where individuals can get support and find respite from distress and burden. The goal is to eventually extend the reach of this app to rural and remote communities.

Shelley Kirychuk, College of Medicine ($50,000): Mould is a significant factor in housing and health for rural residents and on-reserve First Nations citizens. Kirychuk and co-applicants George Katselis, Joshua Lawson and Vivian Ramsden note that dampness or mould in the home have been associated with respiratory health in adults and children. The goal of their research project is to better understand if measures of mould levels in floor dust samples are an effective method to estimate the influence of mould on the respiratory health outcomes of Saskatchewan residents. The findings will help with mould control and remediation strategies.

Joseph Ndisang, College of Medicine ($50,000): This multidisciplinary project by Ndisang and co-applicants Ravindra Chibbar and Rex Newkirk combines basic research in agriculture and medicine to address the increasing incidence of Type-2 diabetes. Researchers will use modern wheat and ancient wheat grains (emmer, einkorn, spelt) in diets for rat models and monitor the onset of diabetes. The project will provide wheat breeders with novel targets for developing new varieties with optimal characteristics targeted for Type-2 diabetes prevention and management.

Louise Racine, College of Nursing ($42,415): Indigenous people constitute 15.6 per cent of Saskatchewan’s population and are affected by life-limiting chronic health problems such as HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular, renal and respiratory disease at a higher rate than the general population. Lack of access to palliative care is a problem for rural and remote residents in the province, but especially so for Indigenous people. Racine and co-applicants Susan Fowler-Kerry, Linda Wason-Ellam, Holly Graham, Brenda Mishak, Jeanie Wills and Gail MacKay will work with the Thunderchild First Nation to explore the needs and challenges to access culturally respectful palliative care in the community. The results will help in the design and implementation of culturally appropriate palliative services in Saskatchewan.

Dr. Kalyani Premkumar, College of Medicine ($49,508): Side effects related to breast cancer treatment can last five to 10 years, and can be as difficult to endure as the disease itself. The research project by Premkumar and co-applicants Emiliana Bomfim, Anne Leis and Franco Vizeacoumar aims to provide strong evidence on how Swedish massage therapy acts in improving sleep, fatigue and stress of breast cancer survivors. Evidence from this research can potentially promote and support recommendations on the use of specific therapies for patients treated for breast cancer.

Dr. Jose Tellez-Zenteno, College of Medicine ($50,000): Saskatchewan has a single provincial epilepsy program, located at the Royal University Hospital (RUH). For rural patients and those who live far from Saskatoon, transportation and the prospect of a lengthy hospitalization stay can pose a significant challenge that hinders access to care. Tellez-Zenteno and collaborators Syed Rizvi and Lizbeth Hernandez Ronquillo are testing a new EEG (electroencephalogram) accessed by cellphone, which can be done by a non-EEG technologist, to diagnose patients with epilepsy. Once it is tested, they want to establish Canada’s first remote epilepsy clinic at RUH using mobile EEG technology to improve prompt referral and provide adequate treatment.

Corey Tomczak, College of Kinesiology ($50,000): Tomczak and co applicants Marta Erlandson, Kristi Wright, Charissa Pockett, Scott Pharis and Timothy Bradley are testing the feasibility and effectiveness of a new eight-month intervention program for children with congenital heart disease (CHD). They have already tested the feasibility and child/parent satisfaction of a week-long day camp-style chronic disease management program for children with CHD. The new program will be the first in Canada specifically tailored for children with CHD, and feature specially designed sessions to improve physical activity, arterial function, cardiopulmonary fitness, body composition, bone health and psychological health.

For more information, visit the SHRF website.