USask health research leaders honoured with SHRF awards

SASKATOON – Internationally recognized environmental and health researcher Dr. Ingrid Pickering (PhD) has been awarded the 2018 Achievement Award by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF)—one of 10 University of Saskatchewan (USask) researchers honoured for providing innovative solutions to health challenges facing the province.

“These awards are a wonderful recognition of the outstanding work of our growing community of health researchers,” said USask Vice-President Research Karen Chad. “SHRF’s investment in our high-quality, peer-reviewed health research is advancing health care in Saskatchewan and developing innovative solutions to global health challenges.” 

Pickering, acting vice-dean research, scholarly and artistic work in the College of Arts and Science, and Canada Research Chair in Molecular Environmental Science, is a global leader in employing synchrotron technologies to study the impact of heavier metals on human health and the environment.

Her pioneering work in synchrotron technologies has led to numerous highly cited studies on topics such as mercury in fish, plant uptake of metals, and the connection between selenium deficiency and arsenic poisoning in places such as Bangladesh.

The award, presented at a Dec. 6 celebration event, also recognizes Pickering’s commitment to training and mentoring students since her arrival at USask in 2003. She has trained more than 90 graduate students, post-doctoral students and research associates in the Training Grant in Health Research Using Synchrotron Techniques (THRUST) program, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Pickering was appointed this year as chair of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the first woman to hold the post in the independent agency that invests in leading-edge infrastructure that helps scientists across Canada advance research and innovation.

“It’s humbling and very special to receive the Achievement Award because of the people who nominated me,” said Pickering. “I share this achievement with the large group of people with whom I have worked and collaborated over the years.”

SHRF’s Impact Award, which recognizes research that builds capacity, advances knowledge and informs decision-making in health care, was awarded to Dr. Brenna Bath (PhD), associate professor in the School of Rehabilitation Science at the College of Medicine, for her work in improving the delivery of effective care to rural patients with chronic low-back pain.

After evaluating three options for delivering treatment to those with limited access to physical therapy services in rural communities, her research team found a “telehealth” system, which connects a city-based physical therapist with a community’s local nurse, was feasible to treat back pain.

It’s the first known application in the world of such a team-and-technology model to enhance back-pain therapy. The work has led to other research, including employing telehealth systems that link teams of urban rheumatologists and physical therapists in treating rural dwellers with rheumatoid arthritis, and investigating how the approach can enhance care for other chronic health conditions.

SHRF’s Excellence Awards recognized the following eight USask scientists, who were ranked at the top of their categories in funding competitions: 

● Top Sprout Grant—Dr. Angela Bowen (PhD), College of Nursing: Indigenous women are often required to leave rural or remote areas of Saskatchewan for a hospital to give birth, an experience that can leave them feeling lonely and alienated. Bowen’s team is developing a photovoice resource to promote cultural competence in health care professionals by detailing women's experiences in hospital, and examining maternity services and educational needs of birth attendants to increase cultural security of women giving birth.

● Top Collaborative Innovation Development Grant: Biomedical—Dr. Xiongbiao (Daniel) Chen (PhD),College of Engineering:Bone defects due to trauma or disease are a common cause of people’s reduced quality of life and inability to work. Chen’s team is researching developing novel 3-D printed bone substitutes (scaffolds) that incorporate biomaterials to restore permanent bone function. The project will also focus on developing non-invasive synchrotron imaging technology to track bone regeneration in animal models.

● Top Research Fellowship: Biomedical—Dr. Renuka Dahiya (PhD),College of Medicine: Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) tumours, which lack expression of the estrogen, progesterone and HER2 receptors, represent the deadliest type of breast cancer. Dahiya’s research team is working with a company, Biomirex Inc., to generate a novel synthetic antibody that targets a cell surface molecule that efficiently suppresses human TNBC tumours in experimental animals.

● Top Ideas That Inspire Grant—Dr. Mark Fenton (MD), College of Medicine: To better understand organ rejection involving lung transplant patients, Fenton’s team is developing and validating a lung transplant model in swine. Using advanced synchrotron imaging to examine airway anatomy and the onset and progression of lesions that may be associated with graft rejection, the team hopes to gain new insights into the immune mechanisms involved.

● Top Establishment Grant: Socio-Health—Dr. Emily McWalter (PhD), College of Engineering: McWalter, a biomechanical engineer, is examining understudied tissues — membranes, muscles, tendons and ligaments—in osteoarthritis of the knee. The proposed MRI techniques will examine tissue structure and function, and provide objective measures of osteoarthritis required to develop new treatments and evaluate their effectiveness.

● Top Establishment Grant: Biomedical—Dr. Eric Price(PhD),College of Arts and Science: Price and his team are researching ways to advance the development of novel radioactive drugs for use in positron emission tomography imaging to clinically detect or treat cancers. These improved drugs aim to reduce the radiation dosage absorbed by healthy organs, and maximize the uptake and retention of the drugs in tumours that are difficult to image or treat.

● Top Collaborative Innovation Development Grant: Socio-Health Systems, and Clinical—Dr. Louise Racine (PhD),College of Nursing: Indigenous people are affected by life-limiting chronic health problems such as HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease at a rate higher than the general population. Lack of access to palliative care is a problem for rural and remote residents, especially Indigenous peoples. Racine’s team is working with the Thunderchild First Nation to explore the needs and challenges of access to culturally respectful palliative care in the community.

● Top Research Fellowship: Socio-Health—Dr. Ornwipa Thamsuwan (PhD),College of Medicine: Back pain caused by prolonged bending common to many farming tasks is highly prevalent among Saskatchewan farmers, affecting their quality of life and ability to work. Supportive equipment, such as an exoskeleton—an external wearable structure that allows the lower limbs to be supported while squatting—could be a practical solution to minimize back bending. Thamsuwan’s team is investigating the biomechanics and usability of a prototype exoskeleton for farmers working at ground height.



For more information, contact:

Jennifer Thoma 
Media Relations Specialist
University of Saskatchewan
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