More than $96 million in funding has been awarded by the Government of Canada for 377 research projects at 55 institutions across Canada, through the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF).
CFI announced the JELF results last week. JELF grants help Canadian researchers to create new lab spaces or acquire new tools and equipment to carry out their innovative research programs, and maintain Canada’s standing at the forefront of science and technology. This round of funding provided $10.61M to 41 labs at the University of British Columbia, including just over $1.5M for 4 researchers in the Life Sciences Institute.
“Support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation ensures researchers are equipped for success at every stage of their career,” said Roseann O’Reilly Runte, the CFI’s President and CEO in the organization’s official announcement. “The John R. Evans Leaders Fund helps Canadian universities, institutes and research hospitals create the conditions necessary for their talented researchers to excel.”
The following LSI investigators received funding in this competition:
Dr. Steven Hallam, Department of Microbiology & Immunology
Grant title: BioFactorial: Enabling High-throughput Applications for Systems Biology and Enzyme Discovery
Project Summary: The replication and expression of biological information defines an unbroken path from the genetic code to observable characteristics that define organismal identity and diversity. In numerical terms this path is dominated by activities of individual cells that give rise to population and community level responses. Imagine a microbial community in which different types of bacteria are specialized to carry out a series of reactions that collectively control nitrogen cycling in the ocean, a worm embryo dividing and differentiating into distinct tissue types that becomes a reproductive adult, or a human stem cell giving rise to various components of the immune system. Although complexity of these systems is extremely difficult to study in aggregate, accessing activities of individual cells can provide quantitative insight into signalling and metabolic networks underlying life’s complexity. The Biofactorial (B!) research initiative, led by Professor Steven Hallam will use cutting- edge microfluidics infrastructure to understand signalling and metabolism associated with cellular networks ranging from microorganisms to the immune system. Results will be used to design metabolic pathways for production of advanced materials and commodity chemicals from renewable sources and to develop next generation diagnostics and precision therapies. This research aligns with UBC’s strategic plan and directly align with Canada’s personalized medicine and sustainability goals.
Dr. Timothy Kieffer, Department of Cellular & Physiological Sciences
Grant title: Stem Cell and Genome Editing Lab
Project Summary: Type 1 diabetes is caused by the loss of beta-cells, which release insulin, the essential hormone for lowering blood sugar. One can only survive a few weeks without these cells, so people living with type 1 diabetes depend upon daily insulin injections. Unfortunately, blood sugar is not fully controlled by this method and diabetes is still a leading cause of heart disease, kidney failure, blindness, and amputation. Beta-cell transplant reduces complications, but donor tissue is limited. In 2014, Dr. Timothy Kieffer reported a protocol to generate large quantities of beta-like cells from stem cells. However, despite optimistic press reports, these cells and those produced by others are not the same as healthy human beta-cells. The first diabetes clinical trials of a stem cell-derived product are underway but generating bona fide beta-cells remains a major focus of the field, along with exploring the feasibility of genome editing the cells for optimal function and protection from immune-based rejection. To achieve these goals, the requested infrastructure will provide advanced systems for optimizing differentiation protocols and scale-up of cell cultivation methods, high throughput genome editing aimed at improving safety and efficacy of stem cell products, and rigorous functional assessments of resulting cells. CFI investment will maintain Dr. Kieffer’s global leadership position in the quest to manufacture beta-cells to cure diabetes.
Dr. Josef Penninger, Department of Medical Genetics
Grant title: Hapscreen-RD: A Platform for Large-scale Screening of Human Haploid Cells for Rare Disease Research
Project Summary: Seven thousand rare genetic disease affect nearly 3 Million Canadians, two-thirds of whom are children. There is currently no treatment available for 94% of these diseases. Rare disease research is challenging because it is difficult to collect a large number of patients and samples with the same rare disease, and there is a lack of good experimental models to study these diseases. It has recently become possible to derive human stem cells with only one set of chromosomes (haploid) while regular cells contain two sets. The greatest advantage of these human haploid stem cells as a model system for studying rare genetic diseases is that only one allele has to be modified in order to recreate, study, or correct a particular condition. Dr. Josef Penninger will establish a state-of-the art research platform called Human Haploid Embryonic Stem Cell Screening for Rare Disease Research (Hapscreen-RD) which he will use to generate rare disease models, discover mechanisms underlying these diseases, and uncover potential new targets for therapies. This research will directly benefit Canadians living with rare diseases, their families, and caregivers. Additionally, the proposed large-scale screening with human haploid ES cells is entirely unique in Canada, and will place the Penninger lab and Canada at the forefront of human haploid cell based biomedical research.
Dr. Hilla Weidberg, Department of Cellular & Physiological Sciences
Grant title: Investigating How Mitochondrial Stress Signaling Maintains Organelle Homeostasis in Health and Disease
Project Summary: Neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are one of the leading causes of disability in Canada and put a great economic burden on society. Despite lots of research in this area, these diseases remain incurable. This is because we do not know which biological mechanisms to target with new drugs. Growing evidence indicates that a common theme in this otherwise varied group of diseases is a defect in mitochondria – the energy-making powerhouses of the cell. Nerve cells (neurons) need a lot of energy to function, consuming approximately 20% of the oxygen in the human body, and are extremely sensitive to mitochondrial dysfunction. Given that defects in mitochondrial function are a common factor underlying neurodegenerative diseases, it is extremely important and timely to broaden our knowledge of how mitochondrial health is normally maintained. Dr. Hilla Weidberg recently discovered a new quality control or surveillance pathway that promotes mitochondrial and cellular recovery when cells are under stress. Her research aims to gain a deeper understanding of this pathway and the role it plays in human diseases. Using molecular biology and advanced technologies such as gene editing, genomics, and super resolution imaging, she will reveal basic cellular mechanisms that keep mitochondria healthy. This innovative research holds great promise for treatment strategies for neurodegenerative and other diseases where mitochondrial dysfunction plays a role.