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Three Concordians land $1.8 million in federal health research funding

Christophe Grova, Lisa Kakinami and Michael Sacher investigate issues related to epilepsy, health inequality and membrane trafficking diseases
August 13, 2018

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has announced new funding for health sector investigations at Concordia. The support reinforces the university’s ongoing efforts to double its research, as part of its nine strategic directions.

Three researchers in the Faculty of Arts and ScienceChristophe Grova, Lisa Kakinami, and Michael Sacher — have been awarded a combined $1.8 million in federal funding.

They hail from the Departments of Physics, Mathematics and Statistics, and Biology respectively. Two of them (Grova and Kakinami) are also PERFORM researchers.

“This high-impact funding — earmarked for three vastly different but equally important projects — will support Concordia’s deeply innovative approach to health research,” says Christophe Guy, vice-president of Research and Graduate Studies.

“These successfully funded researchers exemplify our focus on the full continuum of health issues and interventions across disciplines.”

Using brain networks to improve the treatment of epilepsy

Grova’s research project uses different neuroimaging techniques to study the brain as a network, and more specifically the specific hubs of this network.

“The brain’s hubs are crucial entities that ensure the robustness and the reliability of the whole network,” Grova explains. “Just imagine what would happen if the JFK International Airport in New York closed for a few hours. This is the same for our brain network.”

Christophe Grova Photo by David Ward

Some of these hubs are the primary targets of several neurological diseases such as epilepsy. Working in collaboration with the Montreal Neurological Institute, Grova hopes to find new ways to improve the presurgical investigation of epilepsy patients, to predict the outcome of the surgery and therefore to propose optimal personalized therapeutic solutions to every patient.

To do so, his research aims at studying the patient-specific structures of brain networks.

The multi-institutional project was made possible through the efforts of researchers from Concordia’s PERFORM Centre, as well as McGill University, the École de Technologie Supérieure and the Université de Montréal.

“This great achievement is the result of hard work from a whole team of students and collaborators,” Grova says.

“Sustained funding from the CIHR will open up excellent opportunities for us to recruit motivated graduate students and fund new research using the excellent neuroimaging platform at PERFORM.”

Socio-economic status and health

Kakinami’s research aims to find the link between socio-economic status and health differences.

“Half of all Canadian adults will experience a major chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease or cancer. Those of lower socio-economic position are at a greater risk,” Kakinami explains.

Lisa Kakinami Photo by David Ward

Her study’s findings will identify some of the root causes of health differences. The goal is to demonstrate how health-care providers and city planners can reduce health inequality.

Kakinami aims to link data from different resources, including Geographic Information Systems (GIS), censuses, questionnaires and several administrative databases. The interdisciplinary project will allow her to work with other Concordia departments, including Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology and Psychology, as well as external partners.

The grant germinated from previous collaborative work made possible by an Intercentre Mentorship Award from the Cardiometabolic Health, Diabetes and Obesity Research Network (CMDO), and builds off of the Concordia Longitudinal Risk Project.

“I never would have thought that the small CMDO project — which was focused more on methodologies and statistics — could blossom into this!” Kakinami says.

Protein sorting diseases at the cellular level

Since arriving at Concordia in 2006, Sacher’s laboratory has been studying a large protein assembly called TRAPP (TRAnsport Protein Particle). For the past four years, he has focused on disease-causing mutations linked to the proteins of these complexes. Like Kakinami’s project, Sacher’s is collaborative in nature.

Michael Sacher Photo by David Ward

“We have worked with clinicians and geneticists throughout the world, including the US, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, Austria and Israel, and have identified a number of individuals who have mutations in the genes encoding these proteins,” Sacher says.

“Of particular interest is the C11 gene, in which mutations can cause a syndrome that includes forms of muscular dystrophy.”

Michael Sacher: “The image on the left is a skin cell from a non-affected individual and the one on the right is from an individual with a mutation in a TRAPP protein. The nucleus is coloured in blue and the Golgi apparatus in green. Note that the Golgi in the affected individual is more fragmented and less organized than that of the non-affected individual.” Left: A skin cell from a non-affected individual. Right: From an individual with a mutation in a TRAPP protein. The nucleus is coloured in blue and the Golgi apparatus in green. Golgi in the affected individual is more fragmented and less organized than that of the non-affected individual. | Image courtesy of Michael Sacher

Sacher’s team uses cutting-edge techniques to look for proteins that interact with TRAPP complexes, including imaging the movement of proteins in live cells derived from affected individuals.

“We'll be using some of the CIHR funding to employ CRISPR technology to try and replicate the human mutations in more commonly used cell lines, making our laboratory studies easier to perform and obviating the need to obtain human skin cells," he says.

Learn more about research at Concordia.

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