The University of Ottawa is proud to name Nafissa Ismail, associate professor at the School of Psychology, and Vincent Tabard-Cossa, associate professor in the Department of Physics, as recipients of its Young Researcher of the Year Award. These two professors are being recognized for their outstanding contributions to research and their exemplary success as professors and mentors.
“Pioneers in their respective fields, Nafissa Ismail and Vincent Tabard-Cossa are two researchers we should keep a close eye on in the coming years. The other awards they’ve received and their international collaborations are matched only by their impressive accomplishments thus far in their early research careers,” says Sylvain Charbonneau, vice-president, research.
Puberty and depression
Why is puberty a critical time in the development of certain mental illnesses? Can preventive measures be developed to prevent the onset of depression and anxiety? To answer these questions, Nafissa Ismail and her team are studying the effect of stress on male and female mice during puberty. What is novel about the team’s approach? They’re among the small number of researchers to look at the relationship between gut microbiome and mental illness.
As part of this research, Ismail and her team ran simulations on mice during this stress-sensitive period. The researchers used mice because they have characteristics similar to those of humans. “We gave endotoxins to six-week-old male and female mice to produce an inflammatory response in their bodies and brains. In females, we found that challenging their immune system this way triggered depression,” says Ismail.
To try to minimize the impact of stressors in mice during puberty, the team treated some mice with probiotics, specifically kefir (fermented milk). The researchers found that mice that received both endotoxins and probiotics during puberty did not develop depression—the same result was obtained with mice that received probiotics alone. However, the mice that received endotoxins without probiotics developed depression.
“We now know that probiotics have an effect on the gut microbiome during puberty,” says Ismail. “I want to do further research to both understand the relationship between neuroinflammation and developing depression and anxiety and find a way to prevent the development of these mental illnesses during puberty.”
Nanotechnology at work for medicine
Create a hole the width of a nanometre, which is 50,000 times smaller than a strand of hair, for only a few dollars. This is just what Vincent Tabard-Cossa has done—and his invention could replace a million dollar machine. This new technology will have a huge impact on the development of biomedical applications.
The controlled breakdown method
Tabard-Cossa is now internationally recognized for having developed a new nanofabrication method based on controlling the breakdown of a dielectric membrane in solution. More precisely, controlled breakdown (CBD) makes it possible to manufacture a synthetic nanopore the size of a biological molecule in an ultra-thin membrane with atomic precision. The technique, developed in Tabard-Cossa’s laboratory, uses a simple 9-volt battery to produce the same effect as lightning in the sky, but on a nanoscale. “We control damage at the atomic level to sculpt the material with the greatest precision,” he explains. “The small hole created makes it possible to capture molecules like DNA or proteins, to allow them to pass through and to measure them electronically, one at a time.”
What impact will this discovery have?
Tabard-Cossa, who has secured more than $4 million in external funding to date, is currently working with industry partners interested in commercializing the CBD method. He plans to develop biomedical applications and wants to make nanopore research accessible by removing the barriers traditionally associated with nanofabrication, namely the cost and the complex process.
The goal is to translate this discovery into innovative new technologies. “We want to produce miniaturized devices that can be used anywhere. For example, a medical specialist attending a sports competition would use the device to determine whether an athlete who has suffered a blow to the head should be sent back to the field. The results indicating the severity of the concussion would be instantaneous,” he says.
In the future, Tabard-Cossa’s team would like to create a version of the device that could be implanted to continuously measure various biological markers of an individual and thus allow earlier detection of neurodegenerative diseases or cancers. This is all part of the field of precision medicine.
The Young Researcher of the Year Award recognizes excellence in research and teaching in the social sciences and the pure and applied sciences. The award is accompanied by a $10,000 research grant.