Franco Vizeacoumar is a clinical assistant professor in the College of Medicine and research scientist at the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency.

New U of S CIHR awards help improve health of Canadians

The University of Saskatchewan has been awarded six project grants totalling $4.45 million in the fall 2017 competition of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, nearly doubling its success rate to 15.4 per cent success from spring 2016.

“The U of S success rate in this competition doubling from last year is very significant,” said Marek Radomski, vice-dean of research at the U of S College of Medicine.

The awarded projects range from researching novel ways to treat breast and colon cancer to assessing medically at-risk senior drivers, to investigating reasons for sleep disorders among Indigenous people, to developing a vaccine to prevent camels from transmitting a deadly virus to humans. The six projects provide training for about 10 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.

“This demonstrates that location doesn’t matter for doing good science,” said Franco Vizeacoumar, a cancer genomics expert who led the list of U of S recipients as principal investigator in two awarded cancer research projects and was a co-investigator in a third.

“Saskatchewan’s CIHR success rate was second only to British Columbia,” said Vizeacoumar, clinical assistant professor in the College of Medicine and research scientist at the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency. “This is an amazing opportunity at the national level for Saskatchewan researchers.”   

  • Franco Vizeacoumar’s two projects focus on developing novel targeted therapies to improve survival of cancer patients.
    • He and U of S pathology professor Ron Geyer were awarded $573,750 for research involving a newly identified class of molecules known as circular RNA (circRNA), which are abundant in various cancers. Some of these molecules are key to the survival of cancer cells, and this research marks a first step toward fighting cancer by targeting circRNA.
    • Vizeacoumar’s other award of $592,875 targets colon cancer, with College of Medicine cancer researcher, Andrew Freywald as co-investigator. They aim to address a longstanding challenge involving two specific enzymes often overexpressed in colon cancer.

Despite millions spent over the past 15 years on developing drugs to inhibit the enzymes, the results have been disappointing. The researchers are focusing on alternative ways to target the enzymes to eliminate all cancer cells in a colon tumour.

  • Andrew Freywald, a professor in medicine, was awarded $558,452 to target triple-negative breast cancer. He, Vizeacoumar and Eric Price, an associate professor in chemistry who specializes in nuclear imaging and radiochemistry, are collaborating to develop a novel approach to targeting this most aggressive sub-type of breast cancer, for which there currently is no effective clinical therapy available.
  • Dr. James Dosman, Distinguished Research Chair at the College of Medicine and faculty member at the Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture, along with principal applicants Sylvia Abonyi and Punam Phawa at the college, professor Malcolm King of the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology and 21 co-applicants and collaborators, were awarded $1.25 million to research causes of sleep disorders among First Nations peoples.

The lack of sleep or poor sleep is associated with diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. Researchers are working with two First Nations communities, and aim to develop programs and influence health policy to improve access and reduce wait times for care for Indigenous peoples.

  • Darryl Falzarano, a researcher at the U of S Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization—International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac), is collaborating with three researchers in Alberta, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia to produce a vaccine to prevent transmission of the Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) among camels. MERS-CoV is thought to be transmitted to humans from single-humped camels. Falzarano was awarded $679,320 to develop the vaccine, which could protect people from the respiratory illness that’s been fatal in one-third of human cases.
  • Alexander Crizzle, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health, and a multi-provincial team of 21 co-applicants and collaborators, were awarded $803,250 to develop evidence-based tools to assess medically at-risk drivers (such as seniors) for their fitness to drive.

His team will create an electronic repository of comprehensive evaluations of drivers who’ve been referred to assessment centres in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec, and analyze the data to develop policy and practice guidelines for health professionals and licensing authorities.

“These awards to the U of S are part of an enormous investment in health research for the science community and benefits all of Canada,” said Dr. Roderick McInnes, CIHR president.

“Through these grants, CIHR is supporting researchers at all career stages, across the entire country, and in all areas of health research. Our investigators have made Canada a global leader in health research.”​