As the devastating impacts of long COVID are becoming more evident and widespread, Western University has recruited a powerhouse talent to build and lead Canada’s first-ever research program focused on understanding the impact of infectious diseases on cognition and the human brain.
Renowned worldwide for her groundbreaking work on the effects of viral infections and neuroinflammation on memory, Dr. Robyn Klein will join Western as the new Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Neurovirology and Neuroimmunology.
“Decades ago, when I first started investigating the effects of HIV on the brain, there was little interest in contemplating how infectious diseases influence our cognitive functions. However, in the wake of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the repercussions of long COVID on brain functions and memory have come sharply into focus. Now, more than ever, it’s imperative to invest time, energy and resources into this field,” said Klein, founder of the Centre for Neuroimmunology and Neuroinfectious Disease at Washington University’s School of Medicine.
With $8 million in federal funding, Klein – a scientist, prolific scholar and a medical doctor – will bring her pioneering research program from Washington University in St. Louis, U.S., to the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western.
“Understanding the lasting impacts of infectious diseases and viral pathogens is among the most critical questions facing our society today,” said Dr. John Yoo, dean of Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. “Bridging Western’s existing research prowess in infectious diseases, neuroscience and neuroimaging, Dr. Klein is the ideal scientist for this exact moment in time, to help us solve these challenges.”
In addition to her groundbreaking academic work, Klein has been an unwavering advocate for women in the STEM fields.
“It’s hard to be a woman scientist; it’s been hard my whole life. I’m hoping I can help make things better for other women, especially trainees, so they have a more seamless experience with more mentorship and more inclusion than I have had during my career,” said Klein.
The CERC program is designed to attract the world’s top minds to Canada, by providing stable funding for eight years at a host institution that has the existing research strength, resources and infrastructure to support continued high-impact research.
In 2010, the highly competitive program empowered Western to recruit internationally regarded neuroscientist Adrian Owen as a CERC in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging from the University of Cambridge, U.K.
“We are thrilled with the success of our CERC application and absolutely delighted it has enabled us to bring Dr. Klein to our campus community,” said Western President Alan Shepard. “Her unique expertise is a perfect complement to our world-class researchers and facilities, and we’re excited to see how the research program she leads will thrive and accelerate in this new environment.”
Drawing from over three decades of clinical and research expertise in diverse autoimmune and infectious nervous system illnesses – ranging from HIV-associated neurological disorders to mosquito-borne arboviruses – Klein’s research program delves into understanding how the brain’s immune system shields it from infections and inflammation.
“My goal is to set up a centre for neuroimmunology and neuroinfectious diseases at Western that will incorporate basic science, clinical components, and perhaps even a training program for physicians. It is crucial to train physicians in both neuroimmunology and neuroinfectious diseases so they can address the imminent threats posed by emerging infectious diseases,” said Klein. “With Western’s leading researchers, top-tier programs in infectious diseases, neuroscience and state-of-the-art neuroimaging facilities, I’m excited about all the possibilities to really make a difference here.”
Western is home to one of Canada’s leading state-of-the-art biosafety containment level 2/3 laboratories: the Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation (ImPaKT) facility. Built to enhance understanding of infectious diseases, ImPaKT uses cutting-edge cellular and animal imaging technologies to enable real-time visualization of infections. Since its opening in 2019, ImPaKT has played an instrumental role in deepening insights into infectious diseases, showing how viruses, like SARS-CoV-2, spread and impact human health.
The Centre for Functional and Metabolic Mapping at Western’s Robarts Research Institute houses Canada’s most advanced ultra-high field MRI platform, including Siemens 3T and 7T human MRI scanners, a Bruker 9.4T and Canada’s first-ever 15.2T preclinical MRI scanner. The cutting-edge equipment captures precise and extremely detailed images of the brain, which helps researchers study the brain in ways that was not possible before.
Taking neuro-research to the next level, Western researchers have also developed sophisticated touch-screen technology to discern cognition, like memory, decision-making and attention, in animal models.
The CERC program
The CERC program is funded by the three federal research funding agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The program offers eligible Canadian, degree-granting institutions an opportunity to establish highly funded research chairs in the Government of Canada’s science, technology and innovation priorities for the CERC and Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) programs.
The CERC program has garnered attention for fostering and facilitating the works of some of the globe’s preeminent researchers. Established in 2008, this initiative embodies the nation’s vision to solidify its position as an international powerhouse in the realm of research and innovation. These accolades, generously funded and meticulously designed, rank among the world’s most sought-after research awards.