Young researchers solving health, science puzzles

The core of discovery is research. And the core of good research is a dedicated, inquisitive team of scientists committed to solving some of the key questions of their discipline. Western is proud to highlight the work of teams newly granted Early Researcher Awards through the Ontario Ministry of Research Innovation and Science.

The competitive program is open to full-time faculty or principal investigators whose academic careers at an Ontario research institution began after mid-2013. A funding panel chooses grantees based on researchers’ demonstrated excellence, the quality of their proposals, development of research talent and benefits to Ontario.

Each researcher/team receives project funding of $100,000 (funding shared between the province and university), with an additional $40,000 from the province to cover any indirect costs.

The team leaders and their projects:

Kelly Anderson
Epidemiology & Biostatistics, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry

First-episode psychosis in primary care: Identifying a risk profile and characterizing patterns of service use to aid early detection and intervention

About 5,000 Ontarians are newly diagnosed with of psychotic disorder every year, and timely and adequate management of the first episode is a clinical imperative; however, many people have difficulties accessing specialized services. Family physicians can play a key role in early detection, intervention and treatment. This research will integrate health administrative data, electronic medical records and machine learning analyses to study how young people with first-episode psychosis interact with primary care and family physicians.

Johanna Blacquiere
Chemistry, Science

Molecular catalysts for low-waste sustainable chemical synthesis

Producing fine chemicals such as pharmaceuticals, specialty polymers and fragrances generates a disproportionately large amount of waste. A final pharmaceutical product is typically synthesized in 10-15 steps and generate 25-100 equivalents of waste. This research aims to develop new molecular catalysts to replace existing inefficient synthesis methods. Rigorous performance and mechanistic testing will inform strategies to redesign the catalyst structure to maximize performance, reduce energy demands and reduce waste output in the production of fine chemicals.

Jimmy Dikeakos
Microbiology & Immunology, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry

HIV-1 Nef inhibitors as therapeutics towards a cure

About 37 million people with HIV continue to wait for a cure for the disease. We propose enhancing the probability of curing patients by blocking the activity of a specific protein produced by HIV-1: Nef. When Nef interacts with Src Family Kinases, the immune system is weakened and can no longer fight off disease. The consequence of this failed immune response is the progression of the disease in patients. To combat this, we have developed drugs that disrupt Nef-SFK complexes. The team will test their ability to enhance the immune response in HIV-1 infection models.


Stephen Renaud
Anatomy & Cell Biology, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry

Determining the role of immune cells in the regulation of placental blood flow in healthy and complicated pregnancies.

Preeclampsia (sudden-onset high blood pressure in pregnant moms) and intra-uterine growth restriction (IUGR; poor growth of baby in the womb) are leading causes of sickness and death of pregnant moms and babies in Ontario. The root cause of these serious pregnancy complications is defective development of the placenta – the organ that nourishes the baby throughout gestation. Renaud’s research team has recently discovered uterine immune cells contribute to placental dysfunction, which in turn precipitates preeclampsia and IUGR. This project aims to uncover the mechanisms of how these immune cells cause placental maldevelopment and fetal distress, and to test whether targeting these immune cells can improve pregnancy outcomes.

John Ronald
Medical Biophysics, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry
Robarts Research Institute

Development of novel gene-based technologies for molecular imaging of cancer metastasis

Despite decades of research in cancer treatments, the mortality rate in patients whose cancer has spread throughout the body remains too high. We need to better understand how and why cancer spreads and generate better ways to detect metastases earlier, when the chances of survival are highest. Ronald’s team is developing powerful and safe DNA-based tools called non-integrating lentiviruses (NILVs), self-replicating NILVs and tumour-activatable minicircles that will provide blood and imaging tests to track the metastatic process. They use mouse models to understand mechanisms controlling metastasis and, in the long term, are pursuing their use for improved detection of metastatic lesions in patients.

Ryan Stevenson
Psychology, Social Science

Sensory disturbances in autism and their cascading influence on behaviour and neural processing

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder see and hear the world differently from their peers. Data from Stevenson’s lab suggests perceiving the world in an altered fashion has implications for social communication and other common symptoms associated with autism. This project explores the impact atypical sensory perception has on socio-communication in autism and typical development. The lab will map the different behavioural and neural developmental trajectories of multisensory development in children with, and without, autism. The team will then induce changes in these systems, using a well-established perceptual-learning task, and apply this technique to an autistic population with the goal of inducing positive developmental cascades that will improve socio-communicative abilities.