Trailblazing interdisciplinary research projects receive $3M to explore uncharted territory

Posted on Wednesday, June 3, 2020

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The Exploration stream of the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) has granted a total of $3M to 12 researchers from the University of Ottawa and its affiliated hospital research institutes to support their innovative, high-risk high-reward research projects.

Administered by Canada’s three federal research agencies, the NFRF program seeks to assist research teams that use novel interdisciplinary approaches that could lead to significant social, economic, scientific, artistic, or cultural breakthroughs.

Among the recipients is Anishinaabe-Métis professor of Common Law Aimée Craft. Building on the premise that water is life and has a spirit, Craft is probing Indigenous knowledge of sacred, cultural and spiritual relationships with water through a Canada-Colombia Indigenous knowledge exchange project.

Craft’s research project transcends boundaries and academic silos by involving Indigenous health NGOs, advocacy organizations, grassroots water guardians, as well as law, anthropology, and visual arts researchers and practitioners in dialogues that explore the sacred and normative relationships that participating nations have with water, as well as their approaches to its management. Craft’s goal is to enhance knowledge about Indigenous legal orders and governance practices while ensuring space for Indigenous spiritual, artistic, linguistic, cultural and ceremonial manifestations.

Aimée Craft and the following researchers will receive $250,000 each in the second edition of the NFRF competition.

Aimée Craft, Robert Ben,Vanessa D'Costa, Patrick Giguère, Marc-André Langlois,Chantal Matar, Lora Ramunno, Raphael St-Gelais, Fabio Variola

From left to right: Aimée Craft, Robert Ben, Vanessa D'Costa, Patrick Giguère, Marc-André Langlois, Chantal Matar, Lora Ramunno, Raphael St-Gelais, Fabio Variola


University recipients include:

Robert Ben – Faculty of Science

Given that only 20 percent of transplant needs are currently being met, increasing the availability of tissue and organ transplants is a major health care challenge, one that Robert Ben aims to address with his biomedical engineering research project. Ben and his multidisciplinary team will work on using a unique microfluid bioprinting technology to develop 3D skin and other essential tissues generated from induced human skin and stem cells. Bio-engineered tissues will be cryopreserved, or frozen, for effective long-term storage and transport prior to transplant, thus potentially benefiting millions of patients worldwide.

Vanessa D’Costa – Faculty of Medicine

The majority of targeted cancer therapy drugs are small molecules. While successful for short-term treatments, these therapeutics are very susceptible to the development of drug resistance, which ultimately causes treatment failure. To address this problem, Vanessa D’Costa and her team are developing treatments that combine the use of bacterial toxins, called effectors, with cutting-edge nanoparticle drug delivery methods. Their goal is to find urgently needed therapeutic tools to treat triple negative breast cancer, which accounts for most breast cancer-related deaths.

Patrick Giguère – Faculty of Medicine

Canada is facing a national public health emergency as the result of the growing number of overdoses and deaths caused by the misuse of opioids, including fentanyl, which are widely used to treat pain and addiction disorders. To tackle the national opioid crisis, Patrick Giguère and his research team are exploring the development of hybrid analgesics as safer alternatives for use in pain management and addiction treatment. Building on a recent genetic discovery, Giguère, in collaboration with André Beauchemin of the Department of Chemistry, is aiming to design small-molecule drugs that would combine the inhibition of a pain sensation gene with very low opioid dosages to produce dramatic pain relief without life-threatening effects.

Marc-André Langlois – Faculty of Medicine

Since one in two people develop Alzheimer’s disease (AD) by the age of 85, early symptom detection is vital so that patients can start drug therapy early enough to delay the disease’s progression. Marc-André Langlois and his multidisciplinary research team aim to design a new, highly sensitive way to detect AD at its earliest stages by combining cutting-edge small particle analysis technology, machine learning and expertise in virology, kidney research, and antibody engineering. Langlois’ goal is to analyze markers on the surface of extracellular vesicles — small particles used by cells to communicate — which are released by damaged neuronal cells into the cerebral spinal fluid of AD patients to identify patterns that will facilitate early AD diagnosis.

Chantal Matar Faculty of Health Sciences

The equilibrium of our gut microbiota is critical to driving our immune surveillance against tumors. Taking antibiotics at an early age has been shown to have long-term effects on gut microbiota composition and may have a significant impact on mammary gland bud formation. Chantal Matar is investigating how probiotic supplementation could mitigate the risk of breast cancer in subjects treated with antibiotics during childhood and puberty. Her bilateral research, conducted with Dr. Zdenko Herceg of the World Health Organization, will investigate how probiotics could affect epigenetic molecules (MiRNAs), the small noncoding string of RNA molecules that come into play in cancer cell or gene regulation.

Lora Ramunno – Faculty of Science

Like the batteries we use to power our flashlights, complex molecules that structure our biological tissues have positive and negative poles, and this polarity is intimately connected to their function. Lora Ramunno’s research project aims to develop a biomolecular orientation microscope that detects light in a specific colour range emitted by such polar molecules when exposed to laser light, without needing to add any dyes. Such a groundbreaking microscope would contribute to the early detection of the loss of alignment of polar neuronal transport-regulating molecules, which may be at play in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, and have a critical impact on neuroscience, nano-engineering and drug discovery.

Raphael St-Gelais – Faculty of Engineering

While 50 percent of the energy consumed in industrialized countries could be recycled into another form of energy, only 0.2 percent of this waste heat is converted back into electrical power. Raphael St-Gelais’ portable heat-to-electricity recycling modules might just be on the verge of tapping into this pool of waste heat. This energy conversion project will build on recent breakthroughs in precision mechanics, photovoltaics, and heat transfer research to fine-tune the technology needed to first transform large quantities of heat into light, before converting this light into electricity using modified solar cells. Solar cell specialist Karin Hinzer and Princeton’s advance radiation process simulation expert Alejandro Rodriguez bring their respective expertise to the project.

Fabio Variola Faculty of Engineering

Parkinson’s disease (PD), the second most common neurodegenerative disorder in Canada, is characterized by an abnormal electrical activity of neurons that are involved in the control of movement. Fabio Variola’s research project aims to create an in vitro model that replicates this abnormal neuronal activity observed in PD patients and provides data to evaluate and predict the efficacy of prospective therapeutics prior to clinical trials in humans. His cutting-edge bioengineering system will combine microfabrication techniques and 3D neuronal stem cell cultures.


Xiaohui Zha, Baptiste Lacoste (OHRI) and JianLi Wang (MHRI)

From left to right: Xiaohui Zha, Baptiste Lacoste, JianLi Wang


The recipients from affiliated hospital research institutes include:

Baptiste Lacoste – Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Faculty of Medicine

Brain development is affected in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which are conditions characterized by developmental delay, intellectual disability, and higher rates of metabolic disorders. While neuronal deficits are commonly associated with ASD, vascular problems occurring at an early age also affect brain maturation. However, the link between vascular deficits and ASD remains unclear. Baptiste Lacoste’s research project will focus on cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying neuro-vascular deficiencies in ASD. His multidisciplinary team of experts will work on providing a link between neuro-vascular interactions, neuronal maturation, and metabolic regulation in ASD, thus opening new doors for autism research.

JianLi Wang – The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research, Faculty of Medicine

Suicide is influenced by many factors, including individual health, available healthcare systems, and neighbourhood and communities. JianLi Wang’s research project focuses on improving our capability to prevent suicide at the population and health system levels by developing the first multivariable risk predictive algorithms for suicide. Linking vital health statistics from national and provincial data, Wang will provide an innovative set of risk predictive tools to assist policy and decision-makers in proactively preventing suicide and effectively mobilizing mental health resources.

Xiaohui Zha – Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Faculty of Medicine

Early detection of neuronal dysfunction in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is essential for effective intervention. Xiaohui Zha’s proposal aims to develop non-invasive methods for early detection of neuronal disease. In collaboration with Xiaoyi Bao of the Department of Physics and Michael Schlossmacher of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Zha will work with a multidisciplinary team of experts in optical fibre, disease biology, and clinical neurology to develop proof-of-concept methods.They will apply advanced optical fibre techniques to non-invasively assess the fitness of neuronal cells in animals to help detect neuronal diseases at early stages. Zha’s research will contribute to the development of therapies to stimulate neuronal recovery.

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