Elite researchers share in CFI-JELF funding

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Generating a better understanding on everything from meteorites, autism and heart disease drugs, to asthma and air pollutants, Western researchers are sharing in more than $1 million of a $39 million funding announcement from the federal Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and its John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF), federal and university officials announced today.

This investment for state-of-the-art research labs, announced this morning at the Western International Research Building, will support 251 researchers leading 186 projects at 43 universities across Canada.

Minister of Science and Sport Kirsty Duncan also announced an increase in overall CFI funding of $763 million over the next five years, bringing the total funding to $462 million per year starting in 2023-24.

“The Canada Foundation for Innovation has ensured Canadian researchers have the tools they need to push the frontiers of knowledge in all disciplines,” Duncan said during the funding announcement at Western today. “Today’s announcement of stable, long-term funding will help Canada continue to be an international destination for research and innovation.”

Western researchers receiving JELF funding are:

Gordon Osinski
Earth Sciences
Impact Earth Laboratory

It is clear the impact of asteroids and comets with Earth has played an important role throughout the past 4.5 billion years, shaping the geological landscape – and potentially playing a role in the origin and evolution of life and producing economic benefits. Despite this, there remain fundamental questions concerning the impact cratering process, its products and the effects, both destructive and beneficial.

Led by Earth Sciences professor Gordon Osinski, the Impact Earth Laboratory seeks to understand how rocks are melted during impact events, how impact-generated hydrothermal systems develop and evolve, and the origin of ores around the Sudbury impact structure. The lab includes hand-held and mobile instrumentation to provide a link between traditional field and laboratory-based studies.

The proposed infrastructure comprises items that utilize laser induced breakdown spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to determine the chemistry of rocks and minerals together with ultraviolet, visible and near infrared spectroscopy, coupled with optical microscopy to assess mineralogy and textures.

The lab will revolutionize the understanding of meteorite impact events and their beneficial economic effects, Osinski said. This is particularly important for Canada, which draws such a huge amount of wealth from the mining within the Sudbury impact structure, North America’s largest mining camp.

Grace Parraga
Medical Biophysics
Lung Imaging to Transform Patient Outcomes

Asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD) affect more than six million Canadians and result in a staggering burden on patients and the health-care system. In Canada, COPD accounts for approximately 80,000 hospitalizations each year, with asthma the leading cause of pediatric hospital visits.

Unfortunately, there are no tools clinically available that predict accelerated worsening/exacerbation or that provide sensitive measurements of response to therapy, because lung disease diagnosis and monitoring still depend on spirometry measurements of airflow. To address this knowledge and health-care gap, new measurement tools and treatments are required.

The overarching goal Medical Biophysics professor Grace Parraga’s research program is to discover and develop 129Xe MRI biomarkers of asthma and COPD, translating them to clinical use. The new infrastructure – MRI radiofrequency coil and airway analysis workstation – will accelerate her lab’s ability to advance health-related knowledge in a way relevant to clinical end users and will lead to overall improved health outcomes and cost-savings.

Other benefits to Canadians come from the development of new therapies, as well as a user-validated image analysis pipeline and point-of-care biomarker platform for clinical use and commercialization.

Rithwik Ramachandran
Physiology and Pharmacology
G-Protein Coupled Receptor Signalling in Health and Disease

A large number of current clinically used drugs act on sensors known as G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs)that are present on the surface of cells. Drugs typically bind to GPCRs and modulate the signals sent from these sensors to normalize improper functioning of cells in disease states.

In his laboratory, Physiology and Pharmacology professor Rithwik Ramachandran will study a family of GPCRs he believes could be targets for a new generation of drugs for the treatment of patients at risk of heart disease and stroke. A common problem with drugs currently used to manage these diseases is an increased tendency for bleeding. Ramachandran believes the targets he is studying and the strategy of specifically blocking only the harmful signals emanating from these sensors will result in better drugs for patients.

His team will be able to monitor receptor signaling in unprecedented detail, examine the effect of modulating receptor function in intact tissue and visualize the effect of modulating receptor signals in live animals. While the initial work is focused on drugs for cardiovascular diseases, this family of GPCRs has also been implicated in other diseases such as colitis, arthritis and cancer. Future work could potentially have an impact on novel therapies for these, as well.

Robert Sica
Physics and Astronomy
Measurements of Clouds, Aerosols, Forest Fire Smoke and Volcanic Ash from a Network of Ceilometers

In Summer 2017, British Columbia experienced its worst forest fire season on record and evacuation efforts would be improved by an ability to track the smoke from the fires in real-time. In Europe, during the April 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, the ash clouds covered much of Northern Europe and closed airports in 20 countries, affecting more than 10 million travelers.

Forest fire smoke and pollutant tracking are of great importance for the health and safety of Canadians, as are the effects of a warming climate. One important effect are changes in the amount of ozone in the stratosphere, important for shielding the surface from harmful ultraviolet radiation.

With this in mind, Physics & Astronomy professor Robert Sica will be monitoring five ceilometers located in urban, rural, marine, and Arctic environments, enabling him to improve the understanding of the transport of particulates, as well as studying the impact of these particulates on interpreting ozone trends.

The ceilometers will also allow the structure of the atmosphere to be profiled in both height and time for both the amount and type of particulates present, allowing liquid water to be discriminated from ice in developing clouds, precipitation and fog. The research will establish the technologies and algorithms required to support a Canadian smoke and particulate tracking network, contributing to forest fire detection, air quality control and emergency management.

Ryan Stevenson
Neurocognitive Development of Sensory Processing in Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder defined by difficulties with social communication and the presence of restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. The most commonly reported symptoms of autism, however, are sensory issues such as hypersensitivity to sound.

How we perceive the world, how we see it and hear it, largely defines how we interact with the world. The ability to pick out a speaker’s voice in a crowded room is critical for someone’s ability to have an appropriate social interaction.

Over the next years, Psychology professor Ryan Stevenson will combine behavioural and neural measurements of sensory and perceptual development to explore how sensory systems in the brain typically develop in relation to an array of cognitive processes including language, communication and social interaction.

When someone has sensory issues, or perceives the world different from their peers, as is known to occur in autism, these perceptual differences can lead to changes in behavior and cognitive functioning, and have been shown to contribute to the symptoms associated with autism. Stevenson will explore differences in the neurodevelopment of sensation and perception in autism, characterizing how these sensory issues impact cognitive development and clinical symptoms. This research will pave the way for targeted interventions aimed at improving clinical symptoms.