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2 Concordia research projects receive nearly $1 million in Government of Canada funding

Discovery Horizons grants support work that ‘transcends disciplines to advance knowledge in the natural sciences and engineering’
May 26, 2023
A smiling woman with long, dark hair, wearing a pink cardigan, standing beside a piece of equipment in a lab.
Dajana Vuckovic: “This grant will accelerate the translation of our devices toward clinical implementation.”

Two Concordia research projects have recently secured nearly $1 million in total funding from the Government of Canada. One project aims to improve sampling methods for hard-to-measure compounds in the human body. The other is focusing on facilitating access to heart imaging services in rural areas.

Discovery Horizons grants are administered by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). According to its website, the grants support projects that “transcend disciplines to advance knowledge in the natural sciences and engineering.”

Developing new methods to sample and measure elusive biomarkers

Dajana Vuckovic, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, received $500,000 over five years to design and test new sampling devices that can more accurately measure two types of compounds in the human body: oxylipins and peptide hormones.

Oxylipins are naturally occurring compounds in the human body that are involved in numerous critical biological processes such as temperature regulation, blood coagulation, pain, inflammation and tissue regeneration. They have been linked to many diseases including cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer’s disease.

Peptide hormones are made of small chains of amino acids and act as messengers to regulate many different processes in the body, including growth, metabolism and reproduction.

According to Vuckovic, peptide hormones and oxylipins are particularly challenging to detect because they are unstable, found in very low concentrations and exist in many structural forms that can be difficult to identify.

Current ways of sampling blood to measure these compounds fall short because they aren’t sensitive enough, can’t properly stabilize the compounds in the sample or are too costly or difficult to implement in the clinical setting.

That’s why Vuckovic and her team are developing two new easy-to-use blood sampling devices that will help stabilize oxylipins and peptide hormones and enable their accurate measurement.

By adding special materials to regular blood collection devices and making them easier to use, her team can keep oxylipins and peptide hormones stable and measure them accurately, allowing people to collect their own samples or store them for the future.

“This grant will accelerate the translation of our devices toward clinical implementation,” Vuckovic notes.

“It will also allow us to systematically focus on two very difficult classes of metabolites for which current sample collection paradigms do not work well to advance the approaches used for their measurement. We believe that these studies will have an important impact in the field of at-home and remote sampling.”

Vuckovic’s team includes Andreas Bergdahl, associate professor of cardiovascular physiology at Concordia, and Stella Daskalopoulou, associate professor of medicine at McGill University.

The hope is that these new devices will enable more accurate sampling, while reducing the invasiveness of blood sample collections. This would enable more frequent monitoring, increase patient convenience, reduce health-care costs and democratize the availability of diagnostics in remote regions.

Smiling woman with long, dark hair, wearing a burgundy shirt and a brown blazer Wen-Fang Xie: “The objective of the robot is to democratize access to cardiac ultrasound.” | Photo: David Ward

A robot to facilitate access to heart imaging services

Wen-Fang Xie, professor of mechanical, industrial and aerospace engineering, is leading a team developing and training a robot that can perform ultrasounds of patients’ hearts.

Jamal Bentahar, professor at the Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering, and Lyes Kadem, professor of mechanical, industrial and aerospace engineering, are co-applicants and Philippe Pibarot from the Quebec Heart and Lung Institute is a collaborator. The team received $475,110 over five years to create the first autonomous robot for quantitative ultrasound measurements.

Ultrasound is a critical medical imaging tool used to diagnose and provide treatment for cardiovascular diseases, but people living in remote areas struggle to access ultrasound services as there is a shortage of practicing physicians. Therefore, patients with heart disease often go untreated for long periods of time.

“The main objective of the robot is to democratize access to cardiac ultrasound measurements by providing local access to a state-of-the-art critical clinical autonomous ultrasound imaging facility,” Xie says.

“This will allow people in remote areas to have access to cardiac ultrasound measurements while remaining in their community, surrounded by their family and without compromising on their family and work responsibilities.”

The robot being developed will have a special arm that can hold an ultrasound device. It will use advanced technology to control its movements and advanced reinforcement learning algorithms to learn on its own, so it can perform heart ultrasounds without needing a person to operate it.

The robot will undergo training using various artificial intelligence learning methods. It will initially practice ultrasounds and diagnosis on experimental models.

It will then work with experienced sonographers from the Quebec Heart and Lung Institute on both healthy patients and those with cardiovascular disease.


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