By Neale McDevitt
Thirteen McGill researchers were among the newly appointed or renewed Canada Research Chairs (CRC) as announced earlier today by the Honourable Greg Rickford, Minister of State (Science and Technology). The McGill CRCs are experts in their fields, ranging from nanoscale electronics to cancer stem cell biology.
In all, the University received two Tier-1 and 11 Tier-2 Chairs, including 11 new Chairs, and 2 renewals for a total of more than $12 million.
Speaking from the University of Calgary, Minster Rickford said the Government of Canada will provide $108.9 million through the CRC Program, to support 135 newly awarded and renewed Canada Research Chairs.
“Our government remains committed to attracting and retaining the world’s best researchers, creating jobs and strengthening our economy,” said Minister Rickford. “Through programs such as the Canada Research Chairs, we are supporting cutting-edge research at Canadian universities and fostering innovation by helping researchers bring their ideas to the marketplace, to benefit Canadians and improve our quality of life.”
The CRC Program was created with an annual budget of $300 million to establish up to 2,000 research professorships across the country and to position Canada as a world leader in postsecondary research. The program currently supports researchers, in more than 70 Canadian postsecondary institutions, who are conducting research in natural sciences and engineering, health sciences, and social sciences and humanities disciplines.
Of the 11 new McGill chair holders announced today, all will receive Tier-2 funding, except for Leonard Levin, Chair of Ophthalmology in the Faculty of Medicine and Chief of Ophthalmology at the MUHC, who was awarded Tier-1 funding as the CRC in Translational Visual Science.
Levin specializes in clinical work and laboratory research related to diseases of the optic nerve and retina, with specific interests in neuroprotection and translational research. “People go blind for various reasons but some diseases are reversible,” said Levin. “Cataracts are a good example. Patients used to go blind from cataracts. Now, pretty much everyone who has cataracts can have their vision restored – and that’s true for several other eye diseases.
“On the other hand, there is a large number of diseases for which there are either no treatments or the treatments aren’t very effective. These are frequently diseases where nerve cells, or neurons, die,” said Levin. “People lose vision permanently from these neuronal diseases. These include disorders like glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration – all different diseases, but in the end, the neurons die. My job is to find ways to help these diseases by working on the final common pathway by which they die.”
Levin’s CRC will also focus on ensuring that success in the lab means success in patients. “The difficult thing in medicine is translating what you find in the laboratory to what works in a patient,” said Levin. “People don’t realize this, but much of the time what works in the laboratory doesn’t work in people. I am trying to find ways to solve this ‘Lost in Translation’ problem, by better understanding why this occurs.
“In the end, I hope to apply some of what we learn in the laboratory for irreversible visual loss to a treatment that works in patients with blinding disease,” continued Levin. “This will make a real difference to millions of people, and is my main goal at McGill.”
Other new CRCs include Krista R. Muis, CRC in Epistemic Cognition and Self-Regulated Learning; Irah L. King, CRC in T Helper Cell Function During Infection; Xinyu Liu, CRC in Microfluidics and BioMEMS; Petra Schweinhardt, CRC in Neurobiology of Chronic Pain; Melania E. Cristescu, CRC in Ecological Genomics of Aquatic Invasions; Rowan D.H. Barrett, CRC in Biodiversity Dynamics; Kolja Eppert, CRC in Cancer Stem Cell Biology; Anastasiya Nyzhnyk, CRC in Hematopoiesis and Lymphocyte Development; Rodrigo R. Reyes Lamothe, CRC in Chromosome Biology; Lilian Childress, CRC in Experimental Solid-State Quantum Optics.
McGill’s two renewals include Thomas Szkopek, CRC in Nanoscale Electronics (Tier-2); and Dieter P. Reinhardt, CRC in Cell-Matrix Biology (Tier-1).
Reinhardt, who received his first CRC in 2006, studies extracellular matrices, the major component of connective tissues, and their functional relationship with cells. “I study the generation and degeneration of connective tissue as it relates to human disease,” says Reinhardt. “We are specifically interested in the extracellular microfibril/elastic fiber system located everywhere in the body where you need elasticity like in blood vessels, in the lungs, and the skin. These type of fibers are extremely important for the normal function of these tissues. They are comprised of some 40 different proteins, so there are lots of targets where mutations leading to human disease can happen.”
These mutations can lead to a large number of human connective tissue disorders ranging from thoracic aortic aneurysms and Marfan syndrome to acromelic dysplasias and stiff skin syndrome, among others. Because these disorders affect approximately 1 in 1,500 people, their impact on individuals and society is huge. “Everything we find out about the generation and function of these extracellular matrices helps us to understand how these disorders can unfold. In the longer term, the research should help us to improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention.”
Reinhardt says while the funding that comes with the CRC is important for his operating budget, the main benefit is not financial. “This is very prestigious award. As a CRC, I am able to attract highest profile students and postdocs because they consider holding a CRC is an excellent indicator of quality cutting edge research,” he says. “In the end, the most important aspect is that the research is beneficial to the people.”