UBC researchers tackle health issues with $23.4 million in CIHR grants

Nine UBC researchers have been awarded $23.4 million in funding through foundation grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Their individual amounts range from approximately $500,000 to over $5 million.

With a duration of five to seven years, the grants are primarily used to support long-term health research projects, as well as knowledge translation and mentorship of students and trainees.

“It’s both an indication of the strength and quality of their research,” said UBC VP Research & Innovation Dr. Gail Murphy. “It gives them the opportunity to undertake higher-risk research — difficult problems — and to be able to make sure that they have a solid funding line [to] attract high quality graduate students, undergraduate students and staff.” 

To qualify for the funding, applicants have to undergo a three-stage review process that focuses on research caliber, vision, program direction, as well as accumulated expertise and experience. Furthermore, as of July 17, only established researchers who had received their faculty appointment at least five years ago are considered.

Still, the amount UBC received constitutes “the second highest percentage of grants across the country,” according to Murphy.

She partially attributed this success rate to an initiative within the VP Research & Innovation portfolio called SPARC — the Support Programs to Advance Research Capacity — which strategically supports their applications from the initial stages of proposal development to the final submission. 

“We closely monitor success rates and whats happening with the granting scene out there in Canada,” said Murphy. “We’re also very active in working with the government to try to match the needs we see in the researcher community with what the government is providing in competitions, as well as to make sure that we’re providing that support to allow our researchers to be in the best condition to actually apply to the grants.”

As the grants take effect immediately, the nine researchers are now working on a diverse group of health-related issues — ranging from the social implications of drug use to health equity and from genetic disorders to motor neuron diseases.

[''] UBC

Dr. Lindsey Richardson

Dr. Lindsey Richardson — a medical sociologist and an assistant professor in the department of sociology — focuses on the social determinants of health for vulnerable populations.

Prior to the grant, Richardson started the TASA “Cheque Day” Study, which evaluates whether variation in the timing or frequency of social assistance payments may mitigate these harms in individuals who use drugs, in addition to reducing demands on service providers in the community. Now, she aims to expand this work to examine the health and social impacts of other interventions, such as innovative employment models for people who use drugs.

“It’s important to remember that the Downtown Eastside is often one of the most visible places that … the overdose epidemic is taking place but it’s happening across the province, country and North America,” said Richardson. “It is my hope that we can start to look further upstream to prevent people from using drugs in harmful ways.” 

The full span of her research will involve partnerships with local, provincial and national networks of people who use drugs, in addition to community organizations, service providers and policy makers.

The results of these evaluations could translate to the implementation of interventions and policy changes benefiting communities across BC and Canada.

[''] UBC Okanagan

Dr. Michael Hayden

Dr. Michael Hayden — a Killam professor of medical genetics — studies “novel approaches for the prevention and treatment of Huntington disease,” a progressive brain disorder with a strong genetic component. 

“[Huntington’s] disease has been called the most devastating disease known to man,” Hayden said. “There is no way to halt the progression of the illness, and secondly, it’s in perpetuity — it goes from one generation to the next.”

With the grant, he and his laboratory at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics are now exploring how to silence the gene responsible for the disease and targeting pathways involved in the brain degeneration seen in Huntington’s disease. 

In particular, the funding is used to support various forms of studies that would allow him get proof of concept and develop new therapeutic approaches.

In addition, Hayden is also committed to extending this work to other neurodegenerative disorders, since Huntington’s Disease shares the same mechanisms as a host of neurodegenerative disorders — Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) — according to him.

“If [these approaches] are successful for Huntington’s Disease, this will have relevance for the largest burden of illness in Canada and the rest of the world,” he said.