Six Western projects earn CFI backing

From hearing loss and brain activity, to cancer and joints, to sustainable energy and social cues, six Western-led projects, involving 10 researchers within four faculties, received more than $1 million through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund, Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport announced Monday in Edmonton.

“Ask any researcher in Canada and they will tell you that you can’t do the best science if you don’t have the best tools,” Duncan said. “I am thrilled to announce funding for the infrastructure needs of Canadian researchers. Their ground-breaking contributions to science and research have an enormous impact on the breakthroughs that help make our visions for a better future of Canada a reality.”

Nationwide, more than $61 million was announced to support 261 projects at 40 universities.

The funded Western-led projects included:

Characterizing a neural basis for crossmodal plasticity following sensory loss
Blake Butler, Psychology
$196,245

Hearing impairment is the most prevalent sensory disability in adults, and one of the most common abnormalities at birth. In addition to impaired sound processing, hearing loss also has significant consequences for cognitive and social development. Prostheses such as cochlear implants can restore a sensation of sound, but there remains a subset of recipients who fail to acquire normal spoken language. This variability is thought to result from ‘compensatory’ changes in connectivity between sensory brain areas in the deaf, which enhance the remaining sensory representations, but which may hinder sound processing following restoration.

While these differences have been documented behaviourally, the nature of the anatomical and physiological changes that underlie reorganization remain poorly understood.

This funding will support the neurophysiological, anatomical, and audiometric equipment necessary to develop the mechanistic understanding of neuroplastic reorganization following sensory loss. The research made possible through this investment will use recently developed techniques to target specific subtypes of neural projections between sensory brain regions, and will assess the effect of selectively enhancing or silencing these inputs using optical imaging and behavioural techniques. This research will help improve the design of prostheses for hearing restoration, and develop remediation techniques that will optimize the outcomes for children with deafness.

A computational platform for the discovery of predictive brain dynamics
Jörn Diedrichsen, Computer Science
Marc Joanisse, Psychology
Ingrid Johnsrude, Psychology
$200,000

The human brain is the most complex organ known in nature, characterized by an intricate network of thousands of brain areas, each expressing complex activity patterns that can represent information, and very quickly changing dynamics. To understand how neuronal processes give rise to motor behavior, memory, thought, emotion, and consciousness, a number of internationally renowned research groups at Western are applying advanced computational methods to build and test model of brain function that can capture these complexities. These models have the potential not only to improve our understanding of the healthy human brain, but also to pinpoint the factors that lead to disordered brain function. This will enable the research groups to develop models that can predict the development of neuropsychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia and autism, identify targets for brain surgery, promote recovery after stroke, or forecast the impact of learning disabilities on children.

For this effort, large amounts of behavioral and medical imaging data need to be securely stored and adaptively shared between research groups. Furthermore, researchers require the computational resources to apply modern machine learning methods to these data, in order to identify important features that allow the construction of predictive models. The computational platform supported by this funding is an essential tool accelerate the discovery of predictive brain dynamics.

An integrated platform for pre-clinical testing of melanoma treatments
Silvia Penuela, Anatomy and Cell Biology
$200,000

Melanoma is the deadliest of all the skin cancers and is one of the few cancers that is still rising in incidence every year among Canadians of all ages. Despite our best efforts for prevention and earlier detection, malignant melanoma continues to have survival rates of only a few years.

New therapies that activate the immune system have shown promising results, but only 30 per cent of patients respond to those therapies and many develop resistance after the initial treatment. New targets for melanoma treatment are desperately needed along with pre-clinical platforms to expedite the testing of these therapies.

Penuela’s team has identified a novel molecule called Pannexin 1 that is highly expressed in melanoma tumours and regulates the malignant properties of the melanoma cells. They have used genetic tools as well as chemical blockers for Pannexin 1 that can arrest the growth of patient-derived melanoma cells and reduce tumour formation and metastasis.

The state-of-the-art equipment supported by this funding will allow us to rapidly evaluate Pannexin 1 blockers as well as other melanoma treatments from the petri dish in the incubator to their effect in in-vivo models.

The team’s goal is to be able to assess the potential response of a melanoma patient sample to each drug in a couple of weeks, before it is tested by trial and error in the clinic. The same pre-clinical platform can be applied to other cancer types that would greatly benefit Canadian patients affected by these devastating diseases.

Multiphase Processes for Sustainable Energy and Chemicals
Dominic Pjontek, Chemical and Biochemical Engineering
$200,000

Innovative technologies are urgently needed to address rising greenhouse gas emissions and growing global energy consumption. Novel chemical reactors, which convert renewable feedstocks to liquid fuels and chemical building blocks, will help achieve this Canadian and global goal. Current technical barriers delaying next-generation reactors include complex reaction networks and intricate multiphase (gas, liquid, solid) fluid dynamics, complicating product distribution predictions when scaling-up, thus obscuring economic and environmental considerations. This presents an opportunity to develop reactor technologies for sustainable processes, helping industries achieve Canada’s Climate Change Action Plan.

Gas-liquid-solid fluidized beds are particularly promising for converting renewable liquids (e.g., bio-oils) into liquid fuels and chemical commodities due to inherent energy efficiencies and operational flexibility with multiple phases.

The infrastructure supported by this funding will launch the Multiphase Processes for Sustainable Energy and Chemicals laboratory, enabling Pjontek’s research group to use a multi-faceted approach to establish and optimize reaction kinetic processes for upgrading renewable materials using gas-liquid-solid reactors; intensify gas-liquid mass transfer and fluid dynamic transport processes, key parameters for multiphase systems; and identify and design innovative sustainable technologies to convert existing waste streams to value-added products.

Joint Motion Simulation using Hybrid Experimental-Computational Techniques
Ryan Willing, Mechanical and Materials Engineering
$158,289

Many Canadians undergoing ligament reconstruction surgery for an injured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in their knee will have permanently altered knee mechanics, which often leads to arthritis. Furthermore, a large percentage of Canadians receiving a knee replacement, to treat arthritis, will have poor outcomes due to joint instability and may require additional surgery.

Despite decades of studies, the problems with ligament reconstructions and joint replacements clearly indicate that we still lack a full understanding of how ligaments contribute to intact and reconstructed knee joint biomechanics.

Therefore, the research supported by this funding aims to better understand the roles of ligaments in knees which are intact, have undergone a ligament reconstruction, or joint replacement using an implant. Willing will employ an innovative hybrid experimental-computational technique. This approach enables researchers to perform biomechanics experiments on real joints, but some structures (in this case, ligaments) are replaced with computer-simulated virtual representations, which allows us to parametrically study their contributions to joint behavior.

When completed, this research will result in new knowledge about the behavior of knee ligaments and, in collaboration with internationally renowned surgeons, will provide new surgical techniques with the potential to improve outcomes for Canadians undergoing knee ligament reconstructions and joint replacements.

Social Observation Laboratory
Erin Heerey, Psychology
Alex Benson, Psychology
Samantha Joel, Psychology
$185,005

Face-to-face social interactions form the foundation of social relationships, which are elemental to health, productivity, and well-being. Although we typically think of social interactions as simple interpersonal processes, the quality of the relationships they underpin is a much larger issue. For example, the Conference Board of Canada (2016) estimates that the depression and anxiety caused by social stressors costs the Canadian economy almost $50 billion annually. Moreover, in 2008 the resolution of interpersonal conflict within offices cost the equivalent of $359 billion in paid hours.

Thus, there is no doubt that the subtle social behaviours people produce in face-to-face interactions shape the outcomes of social encounters, with significant consequences. However, despite the importance of subtle social cues, we know little about how people use and interpret them.

This funding will establish a laboratory with advanced video and gaze-tracking capabilities to investigate and understand how verbal and nonverbal behaviours shape social outcomes from the boardroom to the bedroom. Researchers aim to understand how people attend to, interpret and use different social cues and how those cues shape immediate and more distant social outcomes.

This work is an essential step toward developing evidence-based interpersonal training programs and interventions that will improve Canadians’ quality of life, reduce burdens on the health-care sector, and enhance workplace productivity.