Three York University professors receive CIHR project grants

biology lab

Three York University professors have received project grants from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). The grants will advance their important research into cell health and aging, new drug therapies and the changes that take place in the heart after a heart attack.

“York University is delighted to see Faculty of Health Professor David Hood, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Cell Physiology, and Faculty of Science Professors Arturo Orellana and Gary Sweeney receive project grants from CIHR,” said Vice-President Research and Innovation Robert Haché. “These grants are designed to support researchers at any career stage, to help them to build and conduct leading-edge health-related research and knowledge translation projects.”

Understanding exercise, health and aging

David Hood

Kinesiology and health science Professor David Hood’s research is important for our understanding of how exercise can improve musculoskeletal health during the aging process, with important consequences for the well-being of Canadians. He will focus on mitochondria, which are the tiny structures within cells that are also known as organelles. Mitochondria are responsible for the energy production in most cell types. As we age, there is evidence that mitochondrial function declines and the concentration of mitochondria in muscle cells is reduced. This can result in poor energy production, fatigue and decreased quality of life. The reasons for the reduced mitochondrial concentration and function are not well known. In addition, evidence exists that exercise prevents this decrease, but the underlying mechanisms are not established. In this project, Hood will explore the connection between exercise and improved energy production within cells. Specifically, he will investigate the control of mitochondrial breakdown, termed mitophagy; the mitophagy pathway, including its terminal organelle the lysosome; and the effects of exercise.

Limiting the side effects of an important class of drugs

Arturo Orellana
Arturo Orellana

In his project, which focuses on developing new drugs to treat glucocorticoid-induced diabetes, chemistry Professor Arturo Orellana will explore glucocorticoids, which are a class of drugs that are potent anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive compounds. Glucocorticoid drugs are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and cancer among other conditions. Unfortunately, a common side effect of prolonged glucocorticoid use is the development of diabetes. In previous studies, Orellana’s research has shown that the development of diabetes can be detached from the beneficial anti-inflammatory effects of glucocorticoid drugs by modulating the function of a regulatory protein known as LXRb through a newly developed small molecule. This research represents a potential therapy for the prevention of diabetes and may assist with the development of a new generation of anti-diabetic drugs. In this project, Orellana will optimize the drug-like properties of molecules related to the new molecule and identify a pre-clinical candidate for the preventative treatment of glucocorticoid-induced diabetes.

Furthering our understanding of the damage caused by heart attacks

Gary Sweeney
Gary Sweeney

Heart attacks have a major impact on quality of life, and death due to heart failure is too common, especially in people with obesity and/or diabetes. The enhanced knowledge of the complexity of the heart, its structure and how it functions has allowed researchers to identify factors that change in the heart before a heart attack and afterwards. In his project, biology Professor Gary Sweeney is interested in exactly why these changes occur in people with obesity and diabetes. These changes are referred to as cardiac remodelling and they include: the reduced efficiency of the heart to use nutrients to produce energy; a change in the size of the heart (the size of heart cells initially increases); a decrease in the number of heart cells (normally these muscular cells work together to cause contraction and fewer cells means less force); and a change in the balance between elasticity and stiffness of the beating heart (mainly due to changes in the scaffold that normally supports the heart). Only when researchers know and understand the details of these changes will more effective therapies be developed.

For more information, visit the CIHR Project Grant website.