New fund supports early career researchers conducting avant-garde research

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Kin Chan has an unusual approach to tackling climate change. To curb our reliance on fossil fuels, the professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine is applying his expertise in cancer genomics to engineer systems that produce cheap bioethanol from plant waste biomass.  

Chan was inspired by the power of mutations that allow cancer cells to divide uncontrollably. The idea is to use this hypermutation to generate yeast cells that are very efficient at producing bioethanol from plant waste, a more sustainable, cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.   

This unconventional marriage of cancer genomics and biofuel chemical engineering is just the type of trailblazing research that the New Frontiers in Research Fund aims to support. A new initiative of Canada’s three research granting agencies, the fund is geared toward early career researchers conducting “interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and high-risk research,” as its website puts it.

The University of Ottawa and its affiliated research institutes received more than $2.6 million in this inaugural competition.

 

University recipients include:

Clement Bataille, Faculty of Science

Insects can migrate over great distances, transmitting genes, pests, nutrients, pollen and diseases across continents, with considerable benefits and risks to ecosystems and humans. In light of global change, there is an urgent need to understand insect migration and its potential evolution. Clement Bataille’s goal is to use the geochemistry of butterfly wings to reconstruct the insects’ migratory behaviour, to better understand the genetic controls of migration in butterfly populations.

Anne Broadbent, Faculty of Science

Today’s digital infrastructure relies on cryptography to ensure the confidentiality of digital transactions. But will this work with the advent of quantum computers? Anne Broadbent aims to develop advanced cryptosystems that draw on the theory of quantum information and cryptography to achieve new levels of security that protect our privacy and data.

Julian Chan, Faculty of Science

The discovery of new materials that conduct electricity without resistance — and thus without power loss — would revolutionize the way we transmit, store and use energy. Julian Chan and his team are exploring novel chemistries to create exotic organic molecular structures that exhibit superconductivity at high temperatures. Attaining such a goal would ultimately reduce energy wastage and our reliance on non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels.

Kin Chan, Faculty of Medicine

Climate change is a serious challenge to humankind. A major contributor is fossil fuel use. Kin Chan’s objective is to accelerate the development of more advanced yeasts to produce bioethanol from plant waste biomass more efficiently and cheaply. His approach is based on his understanding of DNA damage and mutation in cancers.

Marceline Côté, Faculty of Medicine

CRISPR, a genome editing technology, has garnered a lot of attention due to its potential application in the treatment of various genetic diseases. But there are still shortcomings in the technology’s in vivo applications. In this project, Marceline Côté, Suresh Gadde and Morgan Fullerton aim to use the power of viruses with nano-biomaterials to develop CRISPR-based nanomedicines for gene editing. The long-term goal is to provide therapeutic solutions to genetic diseases for which no treatment is currently available.

Corrie daCosta, Faculty of Science

Pills and injections constitute the vast majority of our options for medication. But what if our own cells were rewired to manufacture and secrete drugs at the right time and the right dose?  Corrie daCosta, Roberto Chica and Maia Fraser are working on developing genetically encoded biosensors based on naturally occurring proteins. These biosensors could be part of future cell-based therapies that have the potential to transform the treatment of diseases such as diabetes.

Riadh Hammami, Faculty of Health Sciences

Probiotics are seen as promising for treatment for mental illness and mood disorders. However, the mechanisms by which they exert their effects have yet to be understood, which is preventing the development of therapeutic applications. Riadh Hammami and Marie-Claude Audet aim to demonstrate that the production of GABA (a type of amino acid) by certain probiotics is a critical mechanism linked to the improvement of mental health. His research will address the need to improve our understanding of the interaction between the gut microbiota and the human brain.

Maxime Rousseaux, Faculty of Medicine

The brain’s incredible complexity can, in part, be attributed to the diverse number of cells that populate it. For Maxime Rousseaux, it is vital to understand in which cell system a given gene plays a role to understand its function and how it goes awry in disease. But current techniques to identify cells of origin are limited and costly. The objective of this research is to harness CRISPR-Cas9, 3D tissue imaging and data mining and visualization to overcome these limitations, and ultimately advance research into Parkinson’s disease.

Leandro Sanchez, Faculty of Engineering

Many of our critical concrete structures in Canada, such as bridges, are showing major signs of deterioration, or even reaching the end of their lifespan. The goal of Leandro Sanchez’s research project is to provide engineers with reliable and efficient tools to detect, diagnose and act on dangerous structural deterioration of concrete. Drawing on civil and geological engineering, artificial intelligence, machine learning and biomedical imaging informatics, these tools will have the potential to revolutionize the monitoring and management of critical infrastructure.

 

The recipients from affiliated research institutes include:

Emilio Alarcon, University of Ottawa Heart Institute

Heart diseases are the number one cause of premature death in Canada. Heart patches that conduct electricity have proven useful for improving cardiac function after a heart attack in animal models, but they are impractical in humans because each patch must be customized. Emilio Alarcon and his team are working on developing a hand-held bio-printing device that would produce heart patches on the spot, allowing surgeons to apply the patch directly to the damaged region of the heart. This tool could save thousands of lives in Canada and millions of dollars in health care costs.

Virginie Cobigo, CHEO Research Institute

Making technology more accessible to persons with cognitive disabilities (CD) is at the core of Virginie Cobigo’s research. This project proposes to engage them as partners in research and development (R&D) processes to improve technologies and increase the likelihood that persons with CD will adopt them. The goal is to implement an inclusive approach to R&D, and to analyze the factors that could further a systemic transformation.

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