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Two million in medical research funding

By Sharon Gray

Three medical researchers at Memorial University have been awarded over $2 million in the latest round of funding decisions by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Dr. Thomas Michalak, Canada Research Chair in Viral Hepatitis/ Immunology, will receive $812,265 for his studies on hepadnavirus pathogenicity in a woodchuck model of hepatitis B. Dr. Guang Sun, Genetics, will receive $806,518 for research on finding the endocrine and genetic determinants of obesity in Newfoundland. Dr. Ken Kao, Terry Fox Cancer Research Laboratory, was awarded $462,138 for analysis of the B-cell Lymphoma-9/Pygopus Protein complex in vertebrate body axis development.

Dr. Michalak heads up one of the world’s leading centres for research on hepatitis viruses. The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is the most common blood-born microbial pathogen and the main causative factor behind development of liver cancer. An estimated 370 million people worldwide suffer from chronic liver diseases caused by HBV and two billion have been exposed to the virus and could be infected at low levels. In Canada about 270,000 individuals have chronic hepatitis B. There is no effective treatment to completely eradicate the virus, and despite having vaccines, the number of people infected is not declining.

Because hepatitis B virus will not grow in a cell culture, Dr. Michalak studies the virus and pathological consequences of its infection using its close relative found in some subspecies of woodchucks. He has established a large research and breeding colony of eastern American woodchucks at Memorial and with this very rare animal model he has made groundbreaking progress in understanding the mechanisms leading to induction and progression of liver diseases caused by this virus and hepatitis viruses in general and ways of dealing with them.

In the current studies the model will be used to further advance knowledge by investigating the yet unidentified elements of the natural history of infection, mechanisms of virus persistence and the roles of viral factors and host immune responses in the development and progression of liver diseases and disorders of the immune system which seem to be associated with HBV infection.

Dr. Sun’s research award will be used to further his research on human obesity. The gut produces chemicals called hormones that tell the brain how much we need to eat. If the level of these hormones is abnormal, a person may eat too much, leading to obesity.

“We think that one of the reasons why more people in Newfoundland are overweight and obese may be due to abnormal levels of these hormones,” said Dr. Sun. “This abnormality may be genetic. We will study the role of genes in causing this abnormality in the Newfoundland population by measuring food intake, total body fat and the level of gut hormones and relate these with any abnormality found in the genes we study.”

Dr. Kao’s cancer study is in experimental embryology and gene expression analysis. “The penetration of the sperm cell into the dormant egg triggers the remarkable program of events that turns the egg into a miniature but living model of the adult, called an embryo,” he explained. “While surface observation might indicate a slow, plodding course of minute changes, if one were to peer into the activities of the cells, one would see extremely busy things taking place – small hormone like molecules being exchanged between cells, genetic information being duplicated and ‘read' by gene transcription machines that are used to make the building blocks of cells, as well as millions of other parallel processes occurring simultaneously.”

Dr. Kao’s research is directed towards understanding one gene transcription machine called BCL-9/pygo. “We are determining how this important molecular structure controls and is controlled to generate a bilaterally symmetric body, from a spherical egg.”