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Understudied until now

Two Memorial University researchers receive Banting Foundation Discovery Awards

Research

By Chad Pelley

A biochemist and neuroscientist from Memorial University have received Banting Foundation Discovery Awards for their new approaches to addressing age-old medical issues.

One research project is exploring a new way to target antibiotic-resistant bacteria; the other is embracing technological advances to improve post-stroke mobility loss. They each receive $30,000 to pursue their research.

Dr. Katie Wilson

“It is estimated that 26 per cent of bacterial infections in Canada are resistant to at least one antibiotic, and antibiotic resistance causes roughly 15 deaths a day,” said Dr. Katie Wilson, Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Science.

Katie Wilson outside with trees behind her
Dr. Katie Wilson
Photo: Submitted

The World Health Organization considers antibiotic resistance a top 10 global health threat.

A class of bacteria known as gram-negative bacteria is especially inclined to resistance.

Dr. Wilson is exploring a new way to neutralize these gram-negative bacteria.

She plans to target something called “WaaL.”

WaaL is a protein that makes lipopolysaccharide molecules in a gram-negative bacteria’s cell membrane. Lipopolysaccharides are essential to these bacteria’s ability to cause infections.

“We will use computer-based methodologies to allow for a detailed visual investigation of the bacterial systems and investigate how drugs can be targeted to WaaL,” she said.

Dr. Wilson’s unique, advanced computer modelling will allow her to study these systems at the level of atoms — something researchers only dreamed of in previous decades.

The computer modelling will also keep her lab safer.

“Through using a computational method, we avoid the risks associated with working with pathogenic bacteria.”

The molecular insight her research will provide to the biochemistry community will extend beyond advances in combatting antibiotic resistance by having applications for common medical ailments like cancer and diabetes, as well.

Dr. Greg Pearcey

Greg Pearcey in a grey blazer with trees in background
Dr. Gregory Pearcey
Photo: Banting Discovery Foundation

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the rate of strokes is on the rise.

Every five minutes, a Canadian suffers a stroke.

For neuroscientists like Dr. Greg Pearcey, School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, learning more about how exactly we move is the only way we can advance the science of post-stroke recovery.

Yet, despite decades of study, our understanding of stroke-induced motor impairments is still far from well-understood, he says.

“Most studies seeking to understand how the nervous system generates movement have focused on asking people to exert force against rigid devices with their limbs,” he said.

Those studies do not provide insight into the origins of actual movement, says Dr. Pearcey, so he plans to take advantage of recent advances in electromyography, the measurement of electrical activity from muscles, to give him new insight into motoneurons (or motor neurons).

Dr. Pearcey describes motoneurons in our spinal cord as “the building blocks for movement.”

When our central nervous system sends signals to our limbs, instructing them to move, motoneurons are the final common pathway these signals must pass through.

In that sense, motoneurons are the air traffic controllers of human movement.

To even begin to understand how the command signals sent to spinal motoneurons are changed after a stroke, we must deeply understand motoneuron function in general, he says.

Dr. Pearcey also says that findings from his work will have the potential to open up many new lines of inquiry in movement augmentation and repair through prosthetic limb control and brain-computer interfaces.

Memorial dominates list

The Banting Discovery awards are designed to fuel innovations in health science by supporting early career scientists.

Of the eight recipients in the latest cohort, two of them are from Memorial University.

“By supporting early career scientists, this award sets our researchers on a path to make big advances in their fields,” said Dr. Travis Frigden, dean, Faculty of Science. “This in turn benefits us all. As the Banting Foundation says, their Discovery Awards are a launchpad to life-saving research.”


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