Four Veterinary Medicine studies where among 39 diverse University of Calgary research projects awarded $34.3 million in Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) funding for 2016.
John Matyas: Grant puts often overlooked disease in the spotlight
Compared to diseases like cancer and heart disease, relatively little medical research has been done on arthritis. A group of University of Calgary researchers, led by John Matyas in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM), is doing its part to change that.
Matyas and his colleagues were recently awarded two Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grants totaling just over $700,000 to investigate the causes of chronic arthritic joint pain.
Matyas’ three previous grant applications for the research were unsuccessful and he is thrilled to finally get started on the project.
“Four years ago we started working on these things and it’s just now that we’ve become an overnight success,” says Matyas.
According to Matyas, the type of long-term pain faced by sufferers of arthritis — both human and animal — is seldom studied.
“There are many thousands of papers published on animals that are in pain for a week or two. But when you study arthritis, a week or two doesn’t even begin to describe it,” says Matyas. More importantly, only studying short-term joint pain may obscure the mechanisms underlying chronic joint pain — the major complaint of arthritis patients.
The three-year projects bring together researchers from medicine and veterinary medicine, with specializations ranging from neuroscience and immunology to molecular pathology.
Matyas believes the fact that arthritis is not a fatal illness means its significance can be overlooked or taken for granted. However, he stresses the enormous impacts the disease has on individuals over a lifetime and on society as a whole.
“It’s quite prevalent in the population and there are enormous direct and indirect costs to productivity, time lost from work, medical costs, required physical therapy and even psychiatry,” says Matyas. There are costs for veterinary patients as well, ranging from loss of animal productivity, to the quality of life for pets.
There is no cure for arthritis and currently its symptoms are generally treated with general medications aimed at inflammation and pain. Matyas says simply understanding the cause of the pain and the circuits it travels from the joint to the spinal cord and ultimately to the brain is crucial for developing specific treatments that target the cause of the pain and not just the disease’s signs and symptoms.
“The better we can understand the basic mechanisms, the closer we come to better treatments.”
Matyas and his group will be injecting fluorescently labeled cells into joints allowing them to track the movement of sensory nerves through the body.
“The expectations for both grants are high, of course, and the intensity is going to ratchet up here pretty quickly,” says Matyas.
Tao Dong: Research project aimed at better understanding bacteria’s weapon system
UCVM researcher Tao Dong has won a five-year CIHR grant worth roughly $600,000 to study a bacterial pathogen that can be life threatening to people with compromised immune systems.
The bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa causes severe infections and is a significant danger to those with compromised immune systems or with chronic genetic diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis. Dong, PhD, assistant professor, ecosystem and public health, and Tier II Canada Research Chair in Molecular Ecology of Waterborne Microbes, says he and his team are seeking to better understand and characterize the bacterium’s deadly “weapon system” for targeting the body’s cells as well as targeting the “good” commensal bacteria.
P. aeruginosa uses three completely independent needle-like apparatus to inject other cells with molecules known as effector proteins that damage or kill the host cells. Dong is interested in how each apparatus recognizes which molecules to use as the “bullets” in its weapon system.
“To understand the function of the secretion system we need to understand the function of the effector proteins,” says Dong. “A number of effector proteins have already been identified for this bacterium but it’s far from complete.”
Dong says this kind of research is a necessary foundation for more applicable discoveries. He hopes this project will help researchers find the new ways of fighting bacteria that will be necessary as bacteria continue to develop resistances to antibiotics.
“It takes a really long time to develop an antibiotic, but it only takes a very short time for the bacteria to gain resistance,” says Dong. “It’s an arms race and we are not as fast.”
Understanding the mechanisms P. aeruginosa uses to destroy other cells may allow researchers to harness the mechanism for good.
“If we can learn from these antimicrobial proteins and develop similarly structured molecules that may give us a vast weaponry to develop new drugs that we haven’t used and pathogens haven’t seen,” says Dong.
Patrick Whelan: Researcher examines how to improve rehabilitation following spinal cord injuries
Rounding out a trio of researchers awarded CIHR grants is Patrick Whelan with a $928,869 grant. Whelan, PhD, UCVM professor of physiology (neuroscience), and his team plan to examine the brain-spinal cord circuits involved in goal-directed locomotion.
“We’re interested in finding out more about this circuit and also using it to boost recovery function following a spinal cord injury,” says Whelan.
Goal-directed locomotion involves movement with the end-goal of accomplishing a task such as walking to the fridge to get a drink. Whelan says other researchers have found that goal-directed locomotion leads to better rehabilitation outcomes.
Whelan believes his research group has identified one area of the brain responsible for this specific type of movement and now wants to see if it can be harnessed to improve recovery following injury.
“That leads us to speculate that the area of the brain that we’re looking at, which is involved in motivated movements, could help people with spinal cord injuries if we can turn it on,” says Whelan.
The researchers will use mice to see if stimulating this specific area of the brain does in fact improve recovery of function. If successful, neurosurgeons might one day be able to activate that part of the brain using implanted stimulators, a technique already being used for some sufferers of Parkinson’s disease.
“One thing about rehab is not everyone is motivated to do it,” says Whelan. “If you can pair stimulation of this area of the brain with the actual rehab you could potentially boost the positive benefits of rehabilitation and recover more functionality.”