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Perinatal programming and stem cell research focus of Canada Research Chairs

By Danelle D'Alvise, Research Communications

October 12, 2012

When Deborah Sloboda talks about children “getting a healthy start on life”, she’s talking about a “start” that tracks back to the mother’s health before she even considers getting pregnant. The associate professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences studies the relationship between maternal health and the increased risk of diabetes, obesity and reproductive dysfunction in offspring when the mother makes poor nutritional choices before and during her pregnancy.

Sloboda was recently awarded a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Perinatal Programming, providing her with the opportunity to focus on the complex molecular pathways and mechanisms that determine reproductive, metabolic and ageing outcomes, and how changes in these pathways increase offspring disease risk.

Sloboda – who is cross-appointed to the departments of obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatrics – was also awarded $357,034 in infrastructure funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) for the project Infrastructure to Support the Study of Perinatal Programming of Offspring Physiologic Function and Disease Risk.

The Canada Research Chairs program counts Sloboda among their repatriations – she came to  McMaster by way of the University of Western Australia and the University of Auckland after completing her undergraduate and graduate work in Ontario. Brad Doble, Canada Research Chair in Stem Cell Signalling, and Sheila Singh, Canada Research Chair in Human Cancer Stem Cell Biology had their Tier 2 Chairs renewed for another five-year term.

The Chairs program provides our University with the opportunity to attract high-calibre researchers such as Deborah Sloboda back to our country to conduct a research program that will ultimately impact and improve the health of Canadians,” said Mo Elbestawi, vice-president, research and international affairs. “Drs. Doble and Singh have been integral to the groundbreaking research that is a hallmark of the Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute. The renewal of their Chairs ensures that these exceptional scientists will continue their leading-edge work in stem cell research here at McMaster.”

Brad Doble

What gives stem cells their unique ability to either make more stem cells or transform into specialized cells such as nerve, blood or muscle cells? Brad Doble, assistant professor, department of biochemistry and biomedical sciences, has been studying the signalling circuitry within stem cells during the 5-year term of his Canada Research Chair in Stem Cell Signalling, and will be continuing this core research with the renewal of his Chair. Understanding the mechanisms that regulate stem cell properties is an important step towards efficiently generating cells or tissues for regenerative medicine purposes and is required to ensure the safe application of stem cell therapies in the clinic. Doble's expertise in stem cell signalling and the genetic manipulation of stem cells has offered a unique opportunity for the 11 trainees (undergraduate and masters students and a postdoctoral fellow) in his lab to learn exceptional skills that would be difficult to obtain in a less specialized laboratory. 

 Brain tumours—a leading cause of cancer deaths in children and a form of cancer that remains difficult to cure despite advances in surgery -- are the focus of pediatric neurosurgeon Sheila Singh's specialized research program. Singh's discovery of an abnormal stem cell that drives brain tumour formation (the brain tumour initiating cell, or BTIC) formed the basis of the innovative and leading edge projects that she pursued during her tenure as Canada Research Chair in Human Cancer Stem Cell Biology. Singh is currently studying the regulation of BTIC signaling pathways in glioblastoma, brain metastases and childhood medulloblastoma, and with the five-year renewal of her Chair, her goal is to selectively target the BTIC with appropriately tailored drug and molecular therapies. As a Surgeon Scientist, Singh is uniquely positioned to translate basic discoveries into future therapies with her ability to correlate the clinical progress of the patients whose brain tumours she has surgically removed with the BTIC profile she obtains in her laboratory. Singh -- who is also the Director of the Surgeon Scientist program at McMaster -- has trained both basic scientists and clinicians in brain tumour biology and clinical neuro-oncology, supervising a total of 15 trainees, from undergraduate to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to visiting scientists, all of whom have gained comprehensive insight into clinical and laboratory practices.

Tier 2 Chairs, tenable for five years and renewable once, are for exceptional emerging researchers, acknowledged by their peers as having the potential to lead in their field. For each Tier 2 Chair, the university receives $100,000 annually for five years.

 “Our government’s top priority is creating jobs, growth and long-term prosperity,” said Minister of State Goodyear. “By investing in talented people through programs such as the Canada Research Chairs, our government is supporting cutting-edge research in Canadian post-secondary institutions. This fosters innovation by helping researchers bring their ideas to the marketplace, where they can touch the lives of Canadians.”