Money in the bank


Two researchers win $1.2 million in grants

Dietrich Neu

Two University of Regina professors have come out as winners in a nationwide race for funding.

Both Nick Carleton and Mohan Babu have been awarded $1.2 million in grants for two health research projects at the U of R. Carleton received $467,499 to research chronic pain, while Babu received $785,135 to research mitochondria. Both grants are part of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research’s (CIHR) yearly grant competition, which doles out approximately $240 million every year to over 14,000 health researchers in Canada.

“This funding is a testament to the excellent research being conducted at the University of Regina,” said Dennis Fitzpatrick, U of R vice-president of research. “Our university is conducting world class research that is making a difference in people’s lives around the world.”

The CIHR’s Operating Grants Competition is highly competitive, with 4,577 applications and only 485 grants awarded. Saskatchewan universities won a total of $2.3 million this year.

“We are really excited that the University of Regina was able to get the funding that it has,” Carleton said. “The process is incredibly competitive. I think we did fantastic as a province, and certainly we did really well as a university.”

Computer software that can reduce chronic pain

New evidence is mounting that software, which resembles a computer game, can now help reduce chronic pain and symptoms of Fibromyalgia.

Carleton, an associate professor of psychology, will receive $467,499 over five years to use this software to study its effect on Fibromyalgia patients. The disorder causes chronic pain all over the body, and there is no known cause or cure. In a pilot study, the software proved to reduce symptoms in patients by up to 30 per cent after they used the program for a few minutes each day.

“There is a lot we know about the psychology of pain now, that we didn’t know even five years ago,” Carleton said. “Pain is a complex phenomenon. Pain is not simply ‘there is a nerve firing in my fingertip and it causes me to feel pain in my brain.’ We know that it is associated with symptoms of avoidance, fear, anxiety.

“We also know that people can feel different intensity levels depending on what they are paying attention to. For example, you’ll hear stories of people coming out of a sporting event, looking down and realizing that they are injured, and that’s the first time they feel the pain. This doesn’t mean that the pain isn’t real, it just means that the pain is being experienced differently.

“For people with chronic pain, over time pain starts to change the way they think about pain.”

According to Carleton’s pilot study, researchers in the United States have used computer software to observe that people with chronic pain automatically react negatively to pain-related words. Carleton and his team have adapted this software to change this dynamic, using a similar program to change the automatic reaction and reduce the pain.

“The results have been very encouraging,” Carleton said.

The software also has the potential to be used over the internet, meaning patients could potentially have unlimited access to the treatment at home for free.

The CIHR’s grant will allow Carleton to conduct a full study, which is essentially the same as the pilot, but on a much larger scale. The study is expected to get underway this fall. Carleton’s team still needs to assess how long the results last, and whether or not it will also help reduce physical disability. If the study is successful, it can potentially revolutionize the treatment of chronic pain. “In an ideal world, I would like to see enough evidence that we can have Health Canada, or at least the provincial health systems, provide this type of program to anybody who needs it, to anybody who has this type of disorder,” Carleton said. “I think it will reduce the overall symptoms they will have. It is not going to cure things, but it could provide a relatively inexpensive, non-pharmaceutical way to provide some additional relief to some of these people who are suffering.”

“This funding is a testament to the excellent research being conducted at the University of Regina. Our university is conducting world class research that is making a difference in people’s lives around the world.” – Dennis Fitzpatrick

Laying the Groundwork

Not a lot is known about how mitochondria, one of the most important cells in the body, can cause diseases when they become dysfunctional. Mitochondria are often called “cellular power plants” because of their crucial role in generating the energy that its host cell requires. They are contained within every cell in the human body.

The CIHR awarded $785,135 to Dr. Babu, an associate professor of biochemistry, and his research team, to study a number of mitochondrial diseases. Because mitochondria serve a wide range of crucial cellular functions, any dysfunction within the cell usually causes cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. 

“Over the past decade, researchers have been trying to pinpoint the actual causes of some of these diseases,” Babu said. “Worldwide, about 1 in 10,000 people are affected by mitochondrial diseases, especially infants.”

Babu’s lab is monitoring the interactions between mitochondrial proteins and genes to create what he calls an “interaction map,” which will have mapped over 700,000 interactions when it is finished.

“We can go in and observe how these proteins are cross-talking, which is vital information for further study,” Babu said.

The team is first observing mitochondrial  interactions in yeast, which are 80 per cent conserved (similar) to human mitochondria. As the data on mitochondria is collected, Babu’s lab will create a vast network of information that will allow future graduate students and scientists to conduct more specific research.

According to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, almost every breakthrough in our understanding about the human cell cycle and human cancer has come from studying yeast.

“I strongly believe that this kind of study will create a lot of breakthroughs,” Babu said. “We will create the interaction map, but one person cannot explore the endless possibilities that will come from this data. This information will give the community the chance to use the data we are generating, and that way they can use that to make important discoveries.

“I am confident this will be a success because the people in my lab all have sufficient expertise,” he continued. “We have been working in this area of study for the last decade. Everyone knows what they are doing; it is just a matter of getting it done.”

This specific project was already underway before the CIHR awarded Babu’s lab additional funding. The team is already 20 per cent complete, and expect to publish several papers over the next four years.

Photo by Dietrich Neu

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