Silvia Penuela, Matthew Teeter named Young Innovators

Anatomy and Cell Biology professor Silvia Penuela and Medical Biophysics and Surgery professor Matthew Teeter have been named recipients of a Petro-Canada Young Innovator Awards.

Established in 2003, the program provides awards to new researchers to recognize and support innovative work that not only impacts positively the learning environment in their department, but society at large.

“The Petro-Canada Young Innovators Awards allow us to recognize, promote and support innovative research by early career scientists at Western,” said Sarah Prichard, Acting Vice-President (Research). “We’re proud of the many contributions Drs. Penuela and Teeter have already made to our community and look forward to their continued success.”

Silvia Penuela
Anatomy and Cell Biology

By 2025, some estimates show that one third of the world’s population could be classified as overweight or obese – a fact that would crater human health around the globe while bankrupting health-care systems.

Anatomy and Cell Biology professor Silvia Penuela, however, is exploring a unique biological trigger that could shift thinking around obesity while helping ease its burden on society.

“We know there are genetic components of obesity that contribute to the predisposition of families, communities and populations to accumulate more fat and be prone to obesity,” Penuela said. “Our discoveries would challenge conventional thinking by identifying a protein that has not been linked to obesity before.”

Penuela and her team are exploring the influence of a channel-forming protein called Pannexin 3 (PANX3), which regulates the communication between cells and tissues. Although never previously linked to obesity, its deletion in mouse models led to weigh loss, increased lean muscle mass and decreased inflammation.

It is a window into possibilities, she said.

Penuela is also testing the metabolic response of mice with a deletion of the Panx3 gene under different conditions such as a high-fat diet and treadmill exercise.

As a potential intervention, she is now looking at what would happen if the Panx3 channel is blocked using available medications.

While her treatment is not near human intervention at this point, Penuela ultimately hopes to study the genetic link that exists between the expression of PANX3 and increased body mass index in obese patients.

“The project has a lot of exciting potential for applications into obesity interventions,” she said.

“One of the high rewards of our research efforts would be to identify high-risk populations more prone to obesity and Type II diabetes to better understand the underlying causes of these co-morbidities, which would also include diet, physical activity and cultural factors.”

Medical Biophysics and Surgery professor Matthew Teeter, Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award winner.

Matthew Teeter
Medical Biophysics and Surgery

A simple technology may offer more specific rehabilitation plans, smoother recoveries and clearer expectations about the future for thousands of knee-replacement patients nationwide.

By combining wearable sensors with machine learning, Medical Biophysics and Surgery professor Matthew Teeter is helping patients with arthritis better understand their present conditions in order to have realistic expectations for life after surgery.

Part of current methods of evaluating surgery success – where a questionnaire is given to patients afterward – are subjective and limited, said Teeter, adding studies show 20 per cent of patients are disappointed with their results.

By introducing these sensors prior to an operation, Teeter believes patients and doctors will both benefit from being better informed of current health conditions, how they relate to a larger pool of similar patients, and then be able to shape recovery expectations, lessening the chance for patient dissatisfaction afterward.

Teeter proposes using sensors to create a data pool of similar patients. That data collected before and after surgery will let doctors quantify how function changes for thousands patients. They can then use that data to predict if a particular patient will respond with improved function following surgery or simply maintain normal function.

“Part of that challenge is the surgeon doesn’t know if you are going to be a ‘responder’ or a ‘maintainer,” Teeter said. “It can be a good outcome for you if the function you have now stays the same and we got rid of the pain. But if you thought you were going to do much better, and you’re unhappy, you’re more likely to complain.”

Predicting how satisfied a patient will be based on their functional outcome helps to set targets for potential interventions to speed up recovery.