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Over $2 million in federal funding to advance discoveries in health research

NSERC’s Discovery Grant Competition awards 12 projects led by Lawson researchers

Last week, the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport, announced an unprecedented investment of more than $588 million through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) Discovery Grants program

The successful applications in London include 12 projects funded for Lawson Health Research Institute scientists, through Western University. In total, they will receive $2.3 million in funding over five years. 

“The funding demonstrates our strong and enduring commitment to science and researchers. Since taking office, our government has worked hard to bring science and research back to their rightful place and this historic investment in the discoveries of tomorrow is just one example of how we are achieving this goal,” says The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport. 

Across Canada, this funding will go to more than 4,850 researchers and students as they pursue their world-leading discovery work. It also includes support for nearly 500 early-career researchers who will bring a diversity of new voices and new insights to their fields.

Local research highlights 

Dr. Jeffrey Carson is exploring the role of photoacoustic imaging as a method for detecting breast cancer. Currently, during the procedure the breast must be submerged in a tank of water to enhance the transmission of photoacoustic waves from the breast to the sensors. 

“The water tank is cumbersome and impractical,” notes Dr. Carson. “Our goal is to eliminate the need for the water tank by detecting the photoacoustic waves through the air without making contact with the breast.” Their hope is that the project leads to the development of a non-contact photoacoustic scanner offering women the opportunity to sit or stand comfortably during breast imaging. “This simple improvement could greatly accelerate the adoption of photoacoustic imaging for breast cancer screening.”

Dr. Carson adds that funding like this provides graduate student trainees opportunities to develop knowledge and skills in engineering, mathematics, and biophysics. “They bring innovative new ideas to the Canadian medical device industry through employment and entrepreneurship.”

 

Dr. Rajnikant Patel is developing advanced robotic and intelligent systems for the next generation of systems and devices for minimally invasive surgery and therapy. These reduce trauma and costs while enhancing efficiency and reliability. 

“For us, this funding opportunity is unique because it supports a program of research rather than a project,” says Dr. Patel. “We can explore new areas and directions that will lead to research projects and medical applications. A program that investigates novel robotic and AI technologies fits well with NSERC’s mandate.” 

 

Dr. Gregor Reid is leading a revolutionary project that could save the world’s honeys bees, insects that are vital to human survival. 

The intent is to develop an understanding of how lactobacilli strains can counter the most widely used pesticides that are wiping out nature’s critically important pollinators. The lactobacilli appear to potentially degrade some of these toxic chemicals and improve the ability of honey bees to fight off early death.   

NSERC funding gives ideas like this a chance and even though the funding amount is relatively small, it allows graduate students to apply for their own awards and work on the project,” explains Dr. Reid. Students Brendan Daisley and Johnny Chmiel have been awarded NSERC scholarships to work on this important research. 

 

Dr. Xiugen Zheng’s project is investigating the role of circular RNA AEBP in the development and function of dendritic cells which are very important immune cells in the immune system. This will provide insights into new molecular and gene regulators, and their impact on the immune system and overall health. 

NSERC research funding greatly supports us to study the basic scientific questions that are critical for better understanding health problems and developing treatment for diseases,” says Dr. Zheng. 

 

Dr. Rudolf Veldhuizen’s laboratory aims to understand how surfactant performs its function at a molecular and biophysical level. Pulmonary surfactant is a material in the lung that allows people and other mammals to breath with minimal effort. You can see this in babies who are born prematurely and have trouble breathing due to the lack of surfactant. 

“Previous work has established a generalized model of how surfactant improves lung function under standardized conditions. This, however, does not explain how surfactant functions in extreme conditions,” says Dr. Veldhuizen. “By exploring conditions in comparative, mechanistic studies we will be able to establish a more universal understanding of surfactant function.” 

This funded work provides a foundation for clinically relevant studies to further explore the role of alterations to surfactant in lung injuries and the opportunities for therapeutic interventions. 

 

Dr. Shou Li is developing state-of-the-art machine learning system able to analyze huge amounts of clinical data and provide human level intelligent analysis. This work will enable the prediction of disease onset, progression and prognosis. “It is added value that will lead to more effective and efficient health care,” explains Dr. Li. 

He adds that this funding is supporting a multi-disciplinary research program that combines the strength of multiple teams. “We will look at both the fundamental side of machine learning systems and clinical applications. In this way, we connect basic science with clinical science.”

 

Congratulations to all the Lawson scientists who received funding:

  • Dr. Dean Betts for Metabolic reprogramming to enhance the generation of canine induced pluripotent stem cells (Physiology and Pharmacology)
  • Dr. Jeffrey Carson for Development of non-contact photoacoustic tomography (Medical Biophysics)
  • Dr. Louis Ferreira for Multi-Directional Mechanical Testing of Bone using CTCompatible Loading Mechanisms (Mechanical and Materials Engineering)
  • Dr. Shuo Li for Innovative Machine Learning for Medical Data Analytics (Medical Imaging)
  • Dr. Penny MacDonald for Investigating cognitive functions mediated by ventral and dorsal striatum (Clinical Neurological Sciences)
  • Dr. Charles McKenzie for Fetoplacental Molecular and Metabolic Magnetic Resonance Imaging; instalment (Medical Biophysics)
  • Dr. Rajnikant Patel for Design and Control of Robotic Systems and Devices for Medical Applications (Electrical and Computer Engineering)
  • Dr. Gregor Reid for Detoxification functionality of lactic acid bacteria (Microbiology and Immunology)
  • Dr. Rudolf Veldhuizen for Mechanisms of surface tension reduction by pulmonary surfactant (Physiology and Pharmacology)
  • Dr. Aaron Ward for Machine learning-based quantitative image, tissue, and clinical data analysis for lesion detection and characterization on prostate cancer imaging (Medical Biophysics)
  • Dr. Eugene Wong for Optimization of spatiotemporal-modulated electric fields and fabrication of organs-on-chips for applications in Medical Physics (Physics and Astronomy)
  • Dr. Xiufen Zheng for The role of circular RNA AEBP2 in dendritic cells (Pathology)