York professors awarded $2.7M in health research funding

Three York University researchers awarded a combined $2,723,399 in funding from the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) will work to advance health-related investigations in areas of social/cultural health and biomedical health.

Professors Peter Backx, Yvonne Bohr and Chun Peng each received a CIHR Project Grant, which is designed to capture ideas with the greatest potential in health research, health care, health systems, and/or health outcomes.

Backx, in York’s Faculty of Science, Department of Biology, will receive $749,700 for a five-year project studying circulatory and respiratory health. His project, “Uncovering the mechanisms of atrial fibrillation using lessons from the adverse atrial remodeling induced by intense exercise” explores relationships between heart health and age, heart disease and exercise.

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common cardiac arrhythmia whose incidence is increased with age, heart disease, and exercise. Backx has compelling evidence that the mechanisms driving AF in exercise is similar to that seen in AF due to heart disease and also that rising with age. The studies will identify the molecular and cellular mechanisms leading broadly to AF thereby allowing the identification of novel approaches for treating and preventing AF.

Bohr, in the Faculty of Health, will receive $1,258,424 over four years for her project “Making I-SPARX fly in Nunavut“, which investigates the use of an award-winning computer program in a cognitive behavioural (CBT) intervention designed to support Inuit adolescents. The project strives to enhance resiliency and increase mattering by empowering youth who are at risk for depression. It evaluates a holistic, multi-generational intervention that brings together CBT, emotion regulation support, culture identity and community processes. Youth leaders, guided by community Elders, will develop skills to foster their own mental health, and also contribute to the collective welfare of their communities. Nunavut-based software developers will support youth in the design of an Inuit-specific version of the SPARX video game intervention, which was shown to be a promising tool in a pilot study completed in 2016 by Bohr and her colleagues.

This initiative aims to integrate the six integral principles of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and serve six Inuit communities. Youth will take on activities that engage their communities in the dissemination and practice of I-SPARX teachings. It is hoped that, once adapted to Inuit culture, and with Nunavut youth making the program their own, I-SPARX may become a useful tool for both Nunavut youth at-risk for depression, and for those working with them.

As part of the project, Inuit youth leaders will be invited to take part in a youth leadership camp at York University during the second year of this project.

“Nunavut has one of the highest adolescent suicide rates in the world and clearly Inuit youth in Northern Canada face extreme adversities,” said Bohr. “Yet, little research has been conducted with Inuit adolescents who are at risk for depression, and remote Nunavut communities have scarce resources for early prevention and intervention programs. There is an urgent need for accessible, culturally relevant and community-supported intervention tools.

“We are fortunate to be teaming up with four Nunavut-based organizations for the implementation of this project: the Nunavut Research Institute, the Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre, Isaksimagit Inuusirmi Katujjiqaatigiit Embrace Life Council, and Pinnguaq Association, a Nunavut-based not for profit technology startup. The project will benefit from the expertise of a multi-disciplinary, national/international research team with team members from Canada, Nunavut, the U.S., Israel and New Zealand”.

Collaborators include York’s Debra Pepler, Gordon Flett, Farah Ahmad, Sarah Flicker, Jennine Rawana, Jonathan Weiss, Jennifer Jenson, and Hugh McCague and psychology PhD student Leah Litwin. Many graduate and undergraduate assistants will also be involved.

Peng, in the Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, will receive $715,275 over five years to study “MicroRNA-218s and their regulated signaling networks in placental development and preeclampsia“.

Preeclampsia (PE) is a major disorder of human pregnancy, characterized by high blood pressure and presence of proteins in the urine. It is the leading cause of maternal death and still birth, and also affects the health of mothers and children later in their lives.

The cause of PE is not well understood; however, Peng’s research has discovered that microRNA-218 (niR-218) levels are lower in placentas of PE patients than those of healthy women, and that miR-218 regulates various activities in placental cells.

These novel findings suggest that miR-218 plays important roles in maintaining the proper development of the placenta and that insufficient production of miR-218 in the placenta contributes to the development of PE.

The major objectives of this grant are to further investigate the role of miR-218 in placenta development; to identify which key molecules are regulated by miR-218; and to determine how abnormal production of miR-218 may lead to PE.

Peng will use placental cells, placental organ culture and placenta/uterus co-culture systems, as well as endothelial cells, to study the functions of miR-218 and the key molecules regulated by miR-218. Findings from the proposed studies will improve the understanding of PE and may reveal novel diagnostic and therapeutic targets for this disorder.

Courtesy of YFile.