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Major grants for health research

Dr. Christopher Kovacs and Dr. Fern Brunger

By Sharon Gray

Two researchers in the Faculty of Medicine have received operating grants in the latest round of funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Aboriginal health research is the focus of work by Dr. Fern Brunger, Community Health and Humanities. Her project has been funded in the amount of $180,000 over three years. Dr. Christopher Kovacs, Endocrinology, has received continuing funding in the amount of $463,273 over three years to research the regulation of murine calcium and bone metabolism during pregnancy, lactation and post-weaning.

“Our research examines how best to set up an Aboriginal-based system for controlling what health research gets done in a community,” explained Dr. Brunger. In collaboration with the Inuit-Métis of Labrador, the objective is to determine how research can best be reviewed by the community and decisions made about whether the research is ethical and worthwhile for the community.
“This is important to determine for communities where there are many ways of understanding how far the community extends and where there are many different ideas about who has the real authority to represent community interests in decisions about research,” said Dr. Brunger.

Dr. Kovacs has been continuously funded by CIHR/MRC since 1999 in his studies of calcium and bone metabolism during pregnancy and lactation. “During lactation a woman will lose calcium from her body in order to provide it to the milk,” he explained. “She meets the baby’s demand for calcium by losing five to 10 percent of the calcium content of her skeleton.”

Dr. Kovacs said the rate of loss of skeletal calcium during lactation is extremely fast when it is considered that a loss of more than one per cent per year is termed “rapid” in a woman at menopause.

“After weaning the baby, calcium that was lost from the skeleton during pregnancy and lactation is completely restored at rates that far exceed what current treatments for osteoporosis can accomplish. This recovery is especially remarkable when it is considered that, apart from pregnancy and lactation, losses of calcium from the adult skeleton are at best only slowly and incompletely restored.”

Through this research, Dr. Kovacs and his team are trying to understand how the skeleton recovers lost calcium so quickly and readily after lactation. “This knowledge might lead to new ways to restore calcium to the skeleton in people with osteoporosis or other conditions of low bone mass. We’ve ruled out all of the known bone-regulating hormones and have entered a new phase of gene and protein discovery in order to identify the factors that stimulate bone formation after weaning. I’m joined in this effort by Dr. Natalia Bykova from the Department of Biology, who will be handling the proteomics part of this work.”