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Research boost

Nearly $2 million in federal funding to strengthen Memorial’s health-related research capacity

By Jeff Green

Five research teams are benefitting from a substantial investment to advance projects aimed at finding solutions to health challenges and training the next generation of scientists.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) recently awarded Memorial a total of $1,921,253 in grants.

The funding will support studies focused on better understanding heart disease, HIV infection, stroke, neonatal nutrition and opioid policy.

“Our multidisciplinary teams continue to be at the forefront of innovative health-related research that is leading to new knowledge and helping improve the health of Canadians,” said Dr. Neil Bose, vice-president (research).

“The valued support of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research allows Memorial to strengthen its research capacity and provide world-class training opportunities to our students. Congratulations to our teams on these excellent results.”

Infant nutrition

Wearing a blue shirt and glasses, Dr. Robert Bertolo is seen in a lab with equipment in the background.
Dr. Robert Bertolo
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Dr. Robert Bertolo, professor, Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Science, received $753,526 for the project, Dietary methyl supply and neonatal methionine metabolism during parenteral nutrition.

He’s looking at the long-term consequences of intravenous feeding early in life.

Intravenous nutrition, also called parenteral nutrition, is often needed in infants who are born small or premature or have gastrointestinal issues.

“This lifesaving measure provides the infant with full nutrition, but because it is fed by vein, it is considered a non-normal mode of feeding and has metabolic consequences,” Dr. Bertolo explained to the Gazette. “Feeding nutrients into a vein bypasses the gut and liver, so nutrients are handled quite differently.”

“We hope our data will be used to make a more precise intravenous solution that minimizes the stress on these infants who are already sick.” — Dr. Robert Bertolo

He also says a lot of important nutrients are missing from these formulations because the focus is on providing only essential nutrients.

Dr. Bertolo is examining methionine, an amino acid that is part of protein. Methionine, which is used to make other key nutrients, cannot be made by the body, so it must be consumed.

“If you only provide methionine as in intravenous nutrition, then that methionine is being pulled in many directions to make other nutrients. Whereas if we provide those other nutrients, then methionine is not being pulled to those pathways and can be used to make protein and help the infant grow. My research focuses on these interactions to try to formulate better intravenous nutrition solutions.”

Valuable research

Dr. Bertolo says early nutrition is critical for lifelong health and can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases in adulthood, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

He says CIHR funding is valuable because it provides opportunities to train and collaborate with students from this province and around the world.

“We hope our data will be used to make a more precise intravenous solution that minimizes the stress on these infants who are already sick,” Dr. Bertolo added.

Heart disease research

Standing in front of a tree, Dr. Jessica Esseltine wears a dark-coloured striped top.
Dr. Jessica Esseltine
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Jessica Esseltine, assistant professor of cancer and development, Division of BioMedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, received $837,676 for the project, Molecular mechanisms underlying inherited Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC) in Newfoundland.

Co-investigators are Dr. Kathy Hodgkinson, professor of clinical epidemiology, Division of Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine; and Dr. Stephanie Protze, assistant professor, Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto.

ARVC is a heart disease where streaks of fat and scar tissue invade the heart muscle, leading to sudden cardiac death and heart failure. Newfoundland and Labrador is home to the largest concentrated population of ARVC patients in the world, caused by a mutation within the TMEM43 gene.

“Our team has the potential to become a nexus of translational, patient-oriented research focusing on Newfoundland and Labrador families.” — Dr. Jessica Esseltine

As part of her project, Dr. Esseltine and her collaborators will take skin cells from ARVC patients and reprogram them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

“These stem cells can then be turned into any cell type we wish, including heart cells,” she explained.

“Because iPSCs can be generated from ARVC patients, they are a powerful platform for disease modelling to understand what goes wrong in ARVC patient heart cells. Using genetic engineering, we will also repair the ARVC gene mutation in patient iPSCs to learn whether repairing this single mistake can completely restore the function of patient heart cells in the lab.”

ARVC is often called the Newfoundland curse, Dr. Esseltine notes.

Research ‘nexus’

She says parents are devastated to learn that their child is affected by the same disease that has killed countless relatives across generations.

“However, Newfoundland ARVC patients are active, engaged and well-informed about their disease,” she added. “By pushing research forward, through learning how the disease causes such devastation, we might offer these families hope that outcomes will improve within their child’s lifetime.”

Dr. Esseltine says she’s grateful for the collaboration of patients, their families and the entire research team on this meaningful research.

“Our team has the potential to become a nexus of translational, patient-oriented research focusing on Newfoundland and Labrador families with far-reaching implications for ARVC patients around the globe.”

Other researchers who have received CIHR funding include the below.

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