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Memorial researchers receive CIHR funding

Feb. 25, 2013

Two researchers at Memorial University have received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in the most recent competition. Dr. Thomas Michalak, Canada Research Chair in in Viral Hepatitis/Immunology, received an operating grant of $648,584 over five years. Dr. John-Michael Gamble, assistant professor at Memorial’s School of Pharmacy, received an operating grant of $150,524 over two years.

Dr. Michalak is studying the hepatitis C virus (HCV), one of the most common human blood-born viral pathogens and a major cause of chronic liver inflammation. Approximately 240,000-300,000 Canadians and at least 170 million people worldwide suffer from chronic hepatitis C.  Complications from chronic hepatitis C, includingliver cirrhosis and cancer, are the main indications for liver transplantation in Western countries.

“While HCV invades the liver, as we and others showed, it also replicates in cells of the human immune system,” said Dr. Michalak. “We have uncovered that, in opposition to the previously accepted opinion, HCV continues as an essentially asymptomatic (occult) infection for years after apparent clinical resolution of hepatitis C. We found that this form of infection, like symptomatic chronic hepatitis C, is associated with replication of the virus, not only in the liver, but in cells such as lymphocytes and monocytes.”

With this five-year CIHR grant, Dr. Michalak will continue to investigate the molecular properties of the virus, and the molecular mechanisms which allow it to infect different types of cells.

“In addition, we will continue studies on further characterization of low-level, occult HCV infection and its long-term clinical consequences,” he said. “Our research should uncover how HCV infects the host’s immune system and why the virus can persist in many patients in spite of seemingly effective antiviral therapy. Our research may also create a base for development of new antiviral agents eliminating this virus not only in the liver but also outside this organ.”

Dr. John-Michael Gamble is an epidemiologist and pharmacist studying the clinical benefits and potential harms of drugs in a real world setting.  He is currently looking at the safety and effectiveness of the newest drugs approved in Canada to treat type 2 diabetes. These drugs work by either enhancing or directly mimicking the effects of the body’s natural intestinal hormones (incretins) that help regulate blood glucose levels.

Dr. Gamble and his colleagues will use a database of detailed health care records for individuals with type 2 diabetes to assess the benefits and risks of incretin-based therapies compared to other commonly used drugs. The enormous economic and public health burden created by type 2 diabetes, particularly in Newfoundland and Labrador, makes this work particularly relevant. Currently, more than nine per cent of the population is estimated to be living with diabetes and, by 2020, the number of people with diabetes or pre-diabetes is projected to be as high as 32 per cent. 

“Although the incretin-based drugs help people with diabetes control their blood sugars, we still have very limited knowledge about their impact on important patient outcomes such as heart attack, stroke and death. We also have an incomplete picture of the safety profile of these drugs,” said Dr. Gamble. “We will help fill this knowledge gap by measuring both the potential beneficial effects and harms of these drugs. Our study will ultimately help inform the decisions of patients, clinicians and policymakers in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.”

“Health, well-being and biomedical discovery remains an important research theme at Memorial University -- one to which we can all relate as individuals and concerned citizens,” said Dr. Christopher Loomis, vice-president (research), Memorial University. “The CIHR funding awarded to Drs. Michalak and Gamble is a clear measure of the excellence of their research, as judged by  their peers, and its potential to positively affect the health and well-being of Canadians."

CIHR is the Government of Canada's health research investment agency. CIHR's mission is to create new scientific knowledge and to enable its translation into improved health, more effective health services and products and a strengthened Canadian health care system.


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