Five York health research projects awarded $1.24 million

York University professors Dorota Crawford, Kari Hoffman, Derek Wilson, Gerald Audette and Vivian Saridakis have collectively received $1.24 million in research funding through four grants from the Ontario Research Fund.

The funding matches $1.24 million previously allocated to the research projects through the Canada Foundation for Innovation, along with $670,000 from other sources. A total of $3.15 million has been earmarked to purchase equipment and other infrastructure to support the research projects, which range in focus from autism and protein biophysics to the role bacteria play in spreading genetic material and the biological causes of cancer and neurological disorders.

John Wilkinson, minister of research & innovation, and David Caplan, minister of health & long-term care, made the funding announcement yesterday at York University on behalf of the Government of Ontario. In total, 116 research projects at 14 institutions received $21 million.

Above: David Caplan, minister of health & long-term care (left), and John Wilkinson, minister of research & innovation (right), listen as York Professor Dorota Crawford explains her lab’s role in advancing knowledge about the cause of autism and a search for treatment of the disorder that affects some 190,000 Canadians. Photo by Sean Billingsley, Faculty of Science & Engineering.

"It’s no secret that York is working hard to become one of Canada’s top research-intensive universities," said York University President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri. "This funding will help York to intensify the health research that happens here. It will help us support the work of our world-class faculty and help our students become global leaders in transforming health care."

Shoukri thanked the province for the funding and praised the McGuinty government for its support of postsecondary education. "I believe Ontario is very fortunate to have a premier who is a champion of postsecondary education and a government with the vision and leadership to invest in it," said Shoukri. "Investing in research and innovation in a lab like this is critical to our economic growth and the well-being of our province. York University researchers are pushing the boundaries of knowledge, finding treatments for disease and developing new ways to address social issues. It is no exaggeration to say they are transforming our world, our jobs and our daily lives."

Right: Student researchers Javaneh Tamiji (BSc ‘08), a first-year masters student (pictured foreground), and fourth-year biochemistry undergraduate student Janaki Vallipuram (left) work in Professor Dorota Crawford’s lab. Tamiji is investigating the environmental causes of autism and Vallipuram is interested in the genetic aspects of autism. Photograph by Sean Billingsley.

"Ontario is a global leader in the health sciences and we punch well above our weight when it comes to research and commercialization," said Wilkinson. "Today’s investment is an important part of our government’s $3-billion commitment to enable our top researchers to turn their best ideas into new knowledge, new technologies, improved therapies and better disease prevention. We have made tremendous investments across the province and we have been able to attract some of the brightest minds in the world to Ontario. We are ensuring that our best researchers have the very best tools to help them create the future that we want."

Dorota Crawford, professor of kinesiology and health science in York’s Faculty of Health, is researching how genetic, molecular and cellular neurobiology and environmental factors contribute to the brain development of children with autism. Her multidisciplinary research program seeks to develop medical tests to identify autism and create both proper diagnostic tools and, ultimately, effective treatment. The funding will provide her laboratory with, among other equipment, a microscope imaging system that allows researchers to take images of living neuronal cells and is the only one of its kind in Canada.

Kari Hoffman, professor of psychology and biology in York’s Faculty of Health, researches the dynamic signals emitted by populations of neurons in the brain. Brain and nervous system disorders, a leading cause of death and disability in Canada, currently cost Canadian taxpayers over $20 billion each year. Through the funding, her laboratory will acquire a high-resolution, high-yield neural data acquisition system, allowing the simultaneous monitoring of pools of hundreds of neurons in the brain. With this technology, Hoffman will address the conditions under which neural populations are communicating effectively, reflecting healthy brain function and the conditions under which they demonstrate interference or cross-talk, as is thought to occur in attentional disorders, autism, epilepsy and memory disorders.

Gerald Audette and Vivian Saridakis’ joint funding proposal will create leading-edge facilities to study proteins’ three-dimensional structure as part of an effort to better understand their biological function to develop new and more effective disease preventions or therapies. Audette, professor of chemistry in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, will explore how bacteria spread genetic material, which can lead to multi-drug resistant bacteria. Saridakis, professor of biology also in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, will focus on tumor suppressor proteins. The facility will also greatly expand York’s research capacity in protein X-ray crystallography, structural biology and biochemistry through the creation of a protein X-ray crystallography suite.

Derek Wilson, professor of chemistry in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, is using his funding to build a new biophysics laboratory. His research uses the latest mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance techniques to investigate the connection between the structural motions of proteins and their biological function. Understanding how proteins move is crucial to designing tailor-made drugs that target specific diseases.

"Ontario has a proud legacy of research and excellence in innovation," said Caplan. "Ontario discovered stem cells and insulin. Researchers invented the pacemaker. By supporting our health researchers, we are helping turn their best research and ideas into quality health care. These researchers will play a very big part in health care across our province."

Speaking on behalf of research at York University, Crawford thanked the government for its support and highlighted how important the funding would be in advancing leading-edge research. "The goal of my research is to find the genetic and environmental causes of autism. There are approximately 190,000 Canadians with some form of autism and most of them never achieve their full potential," said Crawford. "Currently there is no medical test or treatment for autism, however my lab aims to change that with the help of this funding. With this support I have been able to build a leading-edge integrated facility that incorporates genetics, clinical approaches and neuroscience – there are no other laboratories like this one in the world and this is a very exciting time for autism research in Canada and Ontario."

For more information on the projects funded from the Ontario Research Fund, visit the Ontario Ministry of Research & Innovation Web site.