Polanyi Prize recognizes scholar’s imaging work

Special to Western NewsSarah Svenningsen, who completed her PhD in Medical Biophysics at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry last year, received the John Charles Polanyi Prize, presented by the Council of Ontario Universities, which recognizes outstanding researchers in early stages of their career who are continuing to postdoctoral studies or have recently started a faculty appointment at an Ontario university.

While at Western, Sarah Svenningsen was among the first in Canada to approach medical imaging technology as a potential treatment tool for asthma. Early on, her research indicated MRI technology could be used to deliver targeted, more effective treatment to asthma sufferers, considerably benefiting both patients and health-care providers.

For this pioneering research, Svenningsen, who completed her PhD in Medical Biophysics at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry last year, received the prestigious John Charles Polanyi Prize, announced today by the Council of Ontario Universities.

Named after John Charles Polanyi, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the prize annually recognizes five outstanding researchers in early stages of their career who are continuing to postdoctoral studies or have recently started a faculty appointment at an Ontario university.

“When I was doing my PhD at Western, we were really the only centre in Canada actively using inhaled gas MRI technology (for this),” said Svenningsen, currently doing a postdoctoral research fellowship jointly with the Firestone Institute for Respiratory Health at McMaster University and Robarts Research Institute.

A significant portion of hospital visits and admissions in Canada can be attributed to asthma. This inevitably has enormous costs for patients, caregivers, employers and the health-care system.

Current treatment methods for the disease – a long-term, recurring inflammatory condition that affects lung airways and leads to wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath – generally target the whole lung and don’t always improve symptoms or prevent the disease from worsening. This affects both a patient’s quality of life and leads to frequent hospital visits and lost work or school days.

Current and newly developed asthma therapies are mainly directed towards improvements in breathing or lung function tests – poor markers of how patients feel and how frequently they need to change or increase their medications.

Alongside Schulich’s Dr. Grace Parraga, Svenninsgen worked at Western to develop a new MRI method – specifically new, improved measurements – that harness the power of medical imaging and computer programs that can potentially target, personalize and guide asthma treatment selection for individual patients.

“We applied medical imaging to investigate asthmatic patients. What we found was actually quite interesting. Ventilation in the asthmatic subject’s lung is heterogeneous – it is patchy. The accepted notion internationally was asthma was a disease that affected the lung homogenously – the whole lung,” said Svenningsen, who holds Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Canadian Respiratory Research Network postdoctoral fellowships.

Using inhaled gas, MRI technology identifies and targets areas of the lung that require treatment.

“With imaging, we told a different story. That opens up a whole new world, really, for the potential of targeting the lung regionally and treating the disease regionally. That’s the avenue we are now exploring,” she added.

“If we treat only diseased airways, we would greatly reduce the number of treatments asthma patients may need, and this would, in turn, reduce cost and patient burden.”

Clinical studies are now underway with researchers at Western and McMaster, working in conjunction to determine if image-guided treatment results in better outcomes than conventional whole lung treatment. Svenningsen’s vision is medical imaging will lead to the delivery of the correct treatment, in the most effective way, for the right patient and at the right time.

“The (Polanyi) award was given based on the novelty and impact of our work done at Western – those preliminary conclusions we drew form those studies that have led up to what we are doing now,” she said.

“Today’s outstanding winners, like the previous recipients over 30 years of the Polanyi Prizes, demonstrate the truly game-changing research taking place on university campuses across Ontario,” said David Lindsay, President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities.

“Researchers at Ontario universities think big, and will continue to think big, in their pursuit of discoveries that advance human knowledge, drive social progress and create a better future for individuals, the communities we live in and our province.”

Polanyi Prize winners receive $20,000 in recognition of their exceptional research in the fields of chemistry, economic science, literature and physiology/medicine.