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St. Michael’s researchers receive nearly $10 million for brain research

Toronto, September 12, 2014

By Geoff Koehler

Rona Ambrose
(l to r) Dr. Laurie Morrison, Dr. Ori Rotstein, Dr. Arthur Slutsky, Dr. Xiao-Yan Wen and Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose. (Photo by Katie Cooper)

St. Michael’s Hospital received nearly $10 million for brain-related research today.

Two projects, each led by St. Michael’s researchers, were among 32 projects being funded by the Canada Brain Research Fund.

The FRONTIER trial is designed show the effectiveness of NA-1 – a stroke drug developed by Canadian scientists.

“Each minute a stroke is left untreated means two million brain cells are die,” said Dr. Laurie Morrison, director of Rescu – a group that studies out-of-hospital emergency health care – and a scientist with the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael's. “NA-1 is the only emergency treatment that can re-open blocked arteries if given within three to 4.5 hours of the onset of stroke symptoms.”

Unfortunately, only five per cent of Canadian stroke victims receive this treatment.

“With the FRONTIER trial, we want to identify stroke patients early after a 911 call and give first responders a tool that may reduce the damage caused by stroke before they arrive at a hospital,” said Dr. Morrison.

Z-BRAIN is a drug screening project in the first automated high-throughput zebrafish screening facility in Canada.

The facility, which is one of the most advanced screening facilities in the world, is headed by Dr. Xiao-Yan Wen, a global leader in zebrafish research who was recruited to St. Michael’s in 2009 to lead the zebrafish functional genomics initiative.

In Dr. Wen’s lab, researchers are able to grow several generations of zebrafish with a given brain disease in a matter of hours. With this large amount of fish and a collection of existing drugs, researchers are able to rapidly assess which drugs may be most effective at treating diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, depression and stroke.

“Screening by hand is labour-intensive,” said Dr. Wen, a scientist with the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science and director of the Zebrafish Centre for Advanced Drug Discovery of St. Michael’s. “Our automated facility allows us to use live zebrafish embryos to screen millions of compounds each year.”

Zebrafish have recently become a popular organism for biomedical research – especially cardiovascular development and disease, Canada’s top public health threat. Zebrafish are vertebrates, they breed rapidly and prolifically and their hearts start beating at about 24 hours after fertilization. Because they are transparent, researchers can watch the effect of drugs in real time.

Brain Canada’s recognition of these two projects is a testament to the work of St. Michael’s Neuroscience Research Program, which is built upon well-established, clinical excellence in the areas of stroke, neurotrauma, multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative diseases. St. Michael’s is focused on translational research, brining basic science discoveries to patients safely and effectively – from bench to bedside. The “Z-BRAIN” and FRONTIER projects represent two sides of that medical research spectrum.

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose visited The Keenan Research Centre for Biomedial Science to make the funding announcement. She was joined by Inez Jalabalpurwala, president and CEO of Brain Canada.

“These projects will accelerate innovative research that will fundamentally change our understanding of nervous system function and their impact on health,” said Minister Ambrose. “The research will advance knowledge and support the development of new ways to diagnose and treat all types of neurological and mental illnesses.”

Funding for all 32 projects totals nearly $51.4 million. The projects cover a range of areas, including but not limited to mental health, neurodegeneration, neuro delveopment, pain, stroke, and traumatic brain injury.

“I particularly want to recognize the St. Michael’s Hospital researchers,” said Jalabalpurwala. “This hospital is a model for research – basic and clinical – coming together. I was so impressed to see the collaboration that takes place here.”

Based at St. Michael's Hospital, Rescu is part of the Resuscitations Outcomes Consortium, a large, multinational research collaboration of 10 sites across the United States and Canada, studying how promising new tools and treatments can improve survival rates among people who suffer cardiac arrest or life-threatening traumatic injury outside of hospitals.

Dr. Morrison’s FRONTIER trial was granted $6.6 million in funding through a Multi-Investigator Research Initiative project from Brain Canada Foundation.

Dr. Wen’s Z-BRAIN project secured a Platform Support Grant for $2.6 million for their drug screening research.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.