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  • About our Researchers

    Meet some of the people who are behind the science that the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation supports.  These passionate individuals are working hard to help us better understand what happens in our digestive tracts.

    The CDHF provides funding to Canadian researchers which supports the discovery and development of new prevention strategies, faster and more accurate diagnoses and, more effective treatments. This section highlights the excellent work of some of the researchers and projects the CDHF has supported.

  • Herbert Gaisano

    CDHF Funding is the Catalyst to Successful Digestive Health Discoveries

    Finding funding for research that is not considered 'glamorous' can be difficult. Dr. Herbert Gaisano knows this only too well. In the recent past, Dr. Gaisano was having difficulty finding the money required to support his research on alcoholic pancreatitis – a tragic condition which represents a major health problem in Canada for which there is no specific effective treatment.

    "When I started this project," says Dr. Gaisano, "I had no funding to support the personnel required to get the project off the ground. This project was rejected by all the Canadian funding agencies I had applied to." 

    In 2005, the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation solved the problem. The foundation offered a studentship in cooperation with the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) in the amount of $22,000 a year for a period of three years. These funds have been used to support PhD student, Patrick Lam who is expected to complete his PhD in 2008. The work done by Patrick Lam in Dr. Gaisano's lab on alcoholic pancreatitis has identified a new mechanism for this very common complication of alcohol abuse, for which the underlying mechanism is unknown despite considerable work based on existing theories. 

    Patrick's work has resulted in his generating two first authored papers and two second authored papers which have been published in the highest ranking scientific journals.

  • Maria Fernando

    CDHF - CIHR SHOPP 2012 Research Awardee

    "It is essential that emphasis be placed on discovery research to develop new and novel therapies for the treatment of debilitating conditions such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)," says Maria Fernando, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary and a recent recipient of joint funding from the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation and Canadian Institutes for Health Research. Maria hopes her research may, one day, contribute to exciting, novel therapies in the treatment of IBD. 

    Canada has one of the highest incidences of IBD in the world. There are over 220,000 Canadians living with the disease. IBD places significant burden on individuals, families and our health care system, as it is very costly to treat and manage. IBD is also chronic. There is currently no cure. Treatments today have variable effectiveness and include steroids, antibiotics, expensive biologics and, in severe cases, surgery. 

    Maria is interested in determining how specific proteins secreted by various cell types alter the development of macrophages in patients with IBD. Macrophages are large cells found all over the body. Under normal conditions, the gastrointestinal tract is the largest reservoir of these cells. They remove waste products, harmful microorganisms, and foreign material from the bloodstream. Classically activated macrophages cause inflammation during injury or infection. Alternatively activated macrophages (AAMs) promote cell construction and tend to reduce or eliminate inflammation. Maria is most interested in AAMs and her research could be very important for those living with IBD. 

    "Understanding how the environments within our bodies affect the development and/or function of these cells is very important," says Maria. It may be possible that transferring AAMs from the bone marrow or blood of patients with IBD represents a novel therapy for the treatment of the disease. AAMs have already been shown to protect against colitis that scientists have purposely mimicked in a laboratory setting. 

    Preliminary data indicate that one particular cytokine, interleukin – 6 (IL-6), can enhance the formation of an AAM. Cytokines are proteins secreted by many different cells that affect cellular activity and can control, suppress or promote inflammation. This means that determining the role IL-6 plays in the development of AAMs could generate important information to be used to translate data from animal studies to therapies for patients living with IBD. 

    Maria emphasizes that it is a great honour to have had her research recognized by the CDHF as being important in the field of digestive health. She adds that receiving the research award will allow her to network and promote her research in that being the recipient of this prestigious award will help her secure additional funds to continue her work. 

    The CDHF is honoured to support young researchers like Maria Fernando and wishes her much continued success.

  • Kyra Jones

    Kyra's research project aims to more fully understand the enzyme activities involved in the release of glucose from starch. Kyra explains that the last step of starch digestion is the release of individual glucose molecules into the small intestine. These molecules provide our bodies with the fuel we need to function. In individuals with digestive disorders, such as Type II diabetes and obesity, the uptake of too much glucose can be devastating. The resultant fluctuations in blood-glucose levels can have extensive effects on the body including heart, kidney, and eye disease. 

    Inhibitors that slow the digestion of starch and thus slow the uptake of glucose into the blood stream exist today. However, these inhibitors have a variety of unpleasant side effects and affect other enzymes involved in starch digestion. 

    The new research that Kyra is involved in is expected to lead to a better understanding of diet-associated disorders and, ultimately, the development of novel therapies for treating diet-related disorders. 

    "Increasing our understanding of digestive health through research is a very important endeavour," asserts Kyra. "It is an honour and a privilege to know that my research is recognized as important and valuable to the scientific community as well as the Canadian population. I feel encouraged and energized to have received the award from the CDHF and CIHR. I hope that my research will ultimately improve the quality of life of individuals suffering from diet-related diseases."

  • Rustum Karanjia

    CDHF Awards Encourage Innovation and Improve the Lives of Canadians

    "Research encourages development and innovation," says Rustum Karanjia, a medical student /post-doctoral fellow at Queen's University. "Funding research that helps us understand and treat digestive diseases is an important step for improving the lives of Canadians." 

    In 2003, Dr. Karanjia received a Doctoral Scholarship from the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF) and Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) which enabled him to complete his doctoral thesis. Dr. Karanjia's research studied the communication of neurons in the gastrointestinal tract. His focus was on obtaining a better understanding of how synaptic transmission occurs and is managed in healthy individuals. 

    Dr. Karanjia's research, which has now been published and presented at international meetings, forms part of the basic understanding of how neurons work, which is the first step to understanding how things may be changed in people suffer from diseases like IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) or IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). The process of pain in these diseases is poorly understood. Understanding basic mechanisms has important implications for the treatment of digestive diseases as well as other diseases of the nervous system. 

    Rustum points out that the CDHF / CIHR scholarship was important to him for a variety of reasons. First, because finding funding as a graduate student is difficult; next, because recognition of the research made possible because of the scholarship provided him with a sense of pride and encouraged him to continue his work; and, perhaps most importantly, because the scholarship asserted that funding was available for basic science research in Canada, something Dr. Karanjia believes is being lost in the drive for outcomes research. 

    Digestive diseases represent a significant burden on the people and economy of Canada. Funding for ongoing research, like that being done by Rustum Karanjia, has important implications for the health of Canadians and the economic health of our country. CDHF is proud to encourage innovation by supporting Canada's researchers.

  • Connie Kim

    CDHF Awards Encourage Innovation and Improve the Lives of Canadians

    AIDS is recognized by the World Health Organization as a pandemic that has killed tens of millions of people worldwide. An estimated 65,000 Canadians are infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) which causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

    "The gastrointestinal tract is an exciting and critical anatomical site to study HIV," says Connie Kim, a University of Toronto, PhD Candidate and recipient of a research award jointly funded by the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF) and Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR). "I am interested in understanding how the gastrointestinal tract affects those infected by HIV and at risk of developing AIDS." 

    Activities in the gastrointestinal tract have recently been identified as playing a pivotal role in the progression of HIV disease. When someone is infected with HIV, their immune system is compromised. This happens because there is a loss of gut mucosa and a dramatic depletion of special cells (CD4+ T) in the gastrointestinal tract that help fight infections. These factors allow gut microbes to "leak" across protective cells that line the gut and into the body. It is believed that the persistence of these tiny disease-transmitting organisms in immuno-compromised individuals infected with HIV is a major factor that advances disease. 

    Connie is keen to understand the relationship between the immune system and structural loss in HIV infected individuals and the restorative capacity of currently available antiretroviral therapy. Connie asserts that this is a critical area of study and hopes her work will lead to a better understanding of the cause, development, and effects of HIV/AIDS in the gut. 

    "The funding from the CDHF and CIHR has provided me with the motivation to conduct meaningful research in an area that I am passionate about," says Connie. "It has already given me the flexibility to diverge my work into other important areas of HIV and gastrointestinal tract research. My ultimate goal is to improve the lives of Canadians and millions of others impacted by HIV/AIDS." 

    The CDHF appreciates Connie's passion for this area of study and looks forward to sharing the results of her research in the future.

  • Daniel Mulder

    Daniel Mulder hopes to improve the lives of Canadians through the innovative research he is conducting. As one of three young investigators to receive joint funding from the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in 2010, this passionate young investigator from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario hopes his research will help scientists and physicians better understand a new disease called eosinophilic esophagitis and ultimately help those who suffer from this disease. 

    Eosinophilic esophagitis is a condition where the wall of the esophagus (the tube that connects the throat to the stomach) becomes filled with large numbers of white blood cells (leukocytes) called eosinophils. Leukocytes are one type of cell that result in inflammation and are associated with allergic reactions. Inflammation resulting from eosinophilic causes those affected to have trouble swallowing solid food which often becomes lodged in the esophagus. It is not known what causes this reaction and why only certain people are affected. Daniel is taking a broad approach to investigating this disease by looking at everything from the patient's symptoms to changes in the DNA in their esophagus to try and find the answers. 

    Historically, very little attention has been paid to the immunology of the esophagus but this new disease is changing all that. Eosinophilic esophagitis is becoming increasingly common and is now almost as widespread as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) which affects over 200,000 Canadians. Affecting children and adults, eosinophilic esophagitis seems to be more prevalent in young boys and men. 

    "I am honoured to be funded as a graduate student - especially as it is becoming more difficult to obtain financial support for research," says Daniel. "These funds will directly increase the impact of my work by allowing me to devote more time and, most importantly, more resources, to my research." 

    Daniel states that understanding digestive disease through research has an invaluable effect on the health of Canadians. He asserts that digestive health research not only improves measurable outcomes such as inflammation and symptoms but also has an enormous impact on the immeasurable social effects and reduced quality of life issues digestive diseases have on individuals.

  • David Reed

    CDHF Research Funding Improves Understanding and Treatments

    Dr. David Reed, an Internal Medicine resident at the University of Alberta, says it is critical that Canadian digestive health research continues to be funded so that we may improve our understanding and find better treatments for those suffering from digestive diseases 

    He also asserts the important fact that having access to funding specifically earmarked for graduate students wishing to conduct gastrointestinal (GI) research helps attract new researchers to the field. In 2002, Dr. Reed was chosen as the recipient of Doctoral Award that was co-sponsored by Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF) and Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR). The award provided $20,000 a year for his research for three years. 

    The funding Dr. Reed acquired through CDHF was used to support research he was conducting for his doctoral program at Queen's University which examined neural reflexes in the gastrointestinal tract. The research demonstrated that the activation of a specific receptor, protease activated receptor-2, by an inflammatory mediator made nerves in the GI tract excitable even after that mediator had been removed. This is a possible mechanism of abnormal GI function in inflammatory conditions. 

    "Receiving this award was an incredible honour," says David. "Funding -- especially external funding -- is very difficult to acquire as a graduate student. The funds provided by CDHF and CIHR greatly contributed to the completion of my doctoral program." 

    Dr. Reed entered medical school at the University of Toronto after completing his doctoral program and continued to participate in basic science research in gastrointestinal physiology. Now in residency in Internal Medicine, Dr. Reed intends to use his research experience to provide care for the digestive health of people in both inpatient and outpatient settings. 

    "Digestive diseases affect everyone, either directly or indirectly, and have a major impact on quality of life," says David. "Research conducted in digestive diseases by Canadians continues to produce exciting findings that improve the digestive health of our country."

  • David Rodrigues

    Dr. Ivan Beck Memorial Summer Studentship

    David is a first year medical student who has a strong interest in digestive diseases and hopes to be on the front line of treating and studying these diseases in the future. With the support of the scholarship, David will be working under Dr. Nicola Jones at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario this summer. His area of interest is in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), specifically Crohn's disease. This is good news for Canadians as we have one of the highest incidence and prevalence rates of IBD in the world with as many as 240,000 people affected. 

    Inflammatory bowel diseases are comprised of at least two separate disorders that cause inflammation (redness and swelling) and ulcerations (sores) of the small and large intestines. Ulcerative colitis affects only the lining of the large bowel whereas Crohn's disease can occur anywhere in the digestive tract. Malnutrition and blood disorders are common conditions in IBD and almost half of IBD patients have additional health issues affecting their joints, skin, eyes, and biliary tract that may be more debilitating than the bowel symptoms. Many will endure multiple surgeries. 

    David will use the $8,000 scholarship, which is provided jointly by the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation and the Canadian Association Gastroenterology, to study the potential regulation of key autophagy genes by microRNA (miRNA) silencing pathways. David explains that miRNA can regulate the creation of the very proteins that make our bodies function, a phenomenon called 'gene silencing'. Without adequate regulation, processes which are controlled by proteins can cause disease. Several gene mutations have been associated with Crohn's disease including proteins involved in a process called autophagy, which plays a part in our immunity to bacterial infection and inflammation along the digestive tract. 

    The research David will be involved in at The Hospital for Sick Children will focus on determining if, and how, these autophagy genes are regulated by miRNA gene silencing pathways. The results of these studies will provide the basis for determining if alterations in these miRNA are involved in the cause and/or development of Crohn's disease. 

    David says he is honoured to receive Dr. Beck's award. He has recently met several patients with IBD and is learning first-hand how significantly the disease affects the physical, emotional and social well-being of those afflicted. David asserts that "achievements in this field of research may support the development of novel therapies in the future and therefore have the power to provide hope to patients suffering from these poorly understood diseases."

  • Katherine Rowland

    CDHF Research Awards Lead to Life-Long Solutions

    At a time when digestive maladies such as Short Bowel Syndrome, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and colon cancer are a growing concern, this acknowledgement of the need for solutions from a young researcher is encouraging.

    Digestive diseases represent a huge burden on the Canadian economy. They affect nearly 20 million people each year and have a significant impact on the quality of life for those suffering from these diseases. It is not widely known that about 180,000 Canadians have IBD or that approximately 6,500 of the 20,000 people diagnosed with colon cancer each year will die. 

    In 2008, Katherine was awarded a three year doctoral award research co-sponsored by the CDHF with funding provided by AstraZeneca Canada and Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). Her research includes trying to better understand the molecular mechanisms by which glucagon-like peptide-2 stimulates intestinal growth. 

    Katherine says that receiving the CDHF - CIHR award not only means that she can devote more time to her research but that her current work is recognized as valuable by the Canadian digestive health scientific community. 

    Her objectives would include expanding the use of glucagon-like peptide-2 in patients with Short Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. 

    "Receiving funding from CDHF and CIHR will allow me to continue to contribute as a Canadian digestive health researcher," says Katherine. "I am devoted to finding life-long solutions for the treatment of digestive diseases."

  • Asanga Samarakoon

    "Canada has one of the highest incidences of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) in the world. This not only creates a huge burden on the health care system but on individuals affected by this chronic, debilitating disease," says Asanga Samarakoon, a graduate student (PhD) at the University of British Columbia and recent recipient of a research award jointly funded by the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF) and Canadian Institute for Health Research's(CIHR) Small Health Organization Partnership Program. 

    Asanga says the goal of finding a cure for IBD, which includes Crohn's Disease and Ulcerative Colitis, is actively being pursued when Canadian digestive health research is funded. At the Life Sciences Centre in BC, she and her colleagues are investigating how CD45 (an important protein on immune cells) affects inflammation in colitis. Her research will provide insights into the basic mechanism of how immune cells cause inflammation in the gut as well as how inflammation is regulated. 

    Asanga believes that it is vitally important that foundations like the CDHF continue to support researchers because basic research not only leads to newer and more effective therapies to be used in the clinic, it is essential to finding a cure. The importance of basic research, Asanga notes, too often seems to be ignored by government and the general public. 

    "This fellowship rewards my current success as a researcher and is a motivating factor for me to continue conducting excellent research to help understand the biology and find a cure for inflammatory bowel disease," says Asanga. "It is my hope that these new and important insights will ultimately lead to the development of new therapies for treatment of this devastating disease."

  • Ted Shapero

    2010 CDHF Community Research Grant 
    Contributing to Our Knowledge of Factors Influencing Rates of Colon Cancer

    Recently, it has been determined that obesity also increases risk for a variety of cancers, including colorectal. It has been suggested that for every 5 unit increase in body mass index (BMI), the risk of colorectal cancer increases by approximately 10% in females and a massive 24% in males. It has also been suggested that weight loss can reduce this risk. 

    I set out to design a simple study to evaluate the added risk of obesity for colorectal cancer in the population of Scarborough. Scarborough is an ethnically diverse community with a large component of immigrants prone to Metabolic Syndrome and populated with overweight and obese persons. The study observes the rates of colorectal cancer and colonic polyps and how these relate to weight and the elements of the Metabolic Syndrome. 

    In addition, we hope to be able to analyze the relationship of geographic origin to colon cancer risk by identifying immigrants’ homelands to determine whether place of birth and length of residence in Canada is a factor in colon cancer incidence. 

    This simple project requires resources for materials and personnel to enroll patients, collect and enter data and carry out statistical analysis. I am fortunate to be the first community (non-university affiliated) researcher in Canada to receive the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF) Community Research Grant to fund the project. This funding will contribute to our knowledge of factors influencing rates of colon cancer. 

    My study will engage several community gastroenterologists and will clearly demonstrate that when we work together community physicians can efficiently and ethically produce first rate scientific contributions. The conclusions drawn can hopefully contribute to targeting at-risk subjects for colon examination and the formation of strategies for reducing the incidence of colorectal cancer and save lives in Canada. 

    Dr. Shapero is a medical graduate of the University of Toronto who completed fellowship specialty training in Internal Medicine (Toronto General Hospital) and Gastroenterology (Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal) in addition to a research fellowship in Hepatology, University of Southern California. Dr. Shapero has held leadership and clinical staff appointments in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and The Scarborough General Hospital. He was past Chief of Medicine, Scarborough General Hospital (95-99) and established the endoscopy units at both Sunnybrook and Scarborough General Hospitals (Director, Endoscopy Unit). He has been a member of several executive committees in hospital academic settings. He was a former Lecturer and Assistant Professor, Faculty of Medicine at University of Toronto and has published several articles in peer reviewed journals. Dr. Shapero currently sits on the Board of Directors for the Ontario Association of Gastroenterologists since 2008 and actively collaborates on research with the Institute of Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES). He has also lectured extensively with a particular interest in colorectal cancer screening in the community and remains active in clinical gastroenterology.

  • Jaclyn Strauss

    Finding New Ways to Prevent and Treat Disease

    Jaclyn Strauss has experienced firsthand how truly devastating Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is. Affecting over 200,000 Canadians, the onset of IBD often occurs during late adolescence and early adulthood, thus robbing those affected of a healthy body during the prime of their lives. A cure for IBD continues to elude us, as does a clear and defined understanding of the causes of IBD. Jaclyn is hoping to change all that.

    A PhD student from the University of Guelph who is striving to become a clinician-scientist, Jaclyn is a recent recipient of a Doctoral Research Award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF). She is examining the role of the bacterium Fusobacterium nucleatum in IBD. Her work to date has determined that strains of F. nucleatum isolated from IBD patients tend to be more virulent than those isolated from healthy individuals. Jaclyn is trying to identify genes responsible for these differences. This could lead to early identification of people at risk of developing IBD and the development of therapeutic options for treating this devastating disease. 

    "Receiving the CIHR-CDHF award is truly the highlight of my academic career," says Jaclyn. "It is the greatest honour I could receive at this stage of my studies. I am very passionate about digestive health research - particularly research related to Inflammatory Bowel Disease. This award will enable me to continue my own personal quest to find a cure for IBD and develop the skills needed to become a leader in gastroenterology research." 

    Over 20 million Canadians are afflicted with digestive disorder and the number of Canadians suffering from undefined or undiagnosed digestive ailments continues to rise. These ailments not only affect the quality of life of those suffering, but also place a heavy burden on the health care system. "Continued funding for research is essential to understanding what contributes to digestive health and disease," asserts the aspiring clinician-scientist. "We need to find ways to prevent and treat disease and ultimately improve the health of Canadians."

  • Lauren Van Der Kraak

    CDHF / CIHR SHOPP 2011 Research Awardee Profile

    "Both Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and colorectal cancer arise due to a combination of dietary, lifestyle, host microbial and genetic factors. While it is possible to control or modify diet and exercise patterns, we cannot control our genetics.

    "Canada has one of the highest rates of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and incidence of colorectal cancer," says Lauren Van Der Kraak. "These are not statistics where being first is best." 

    Lauren is a PhD Candidate at McGill University in Quebec and recipient of one of three 2011 research awards jointly funded by the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF) and Canadian Institute for Health Research's (CIHR) Small Health Organization Partnership Program. Her research aims to help identify IBD and colon cancer risk factors in the form of susceptibility genes. 

    "Once identified and validated," explains Lauren, "these genes can serve as markers to screen affected individuals or families. If we can identify early on who is more at risk of developing disease, it is expected that we will save more lives by offering early, appropriate prevention and treatment." This is exciting news and offers hope for afflicted Canadians. 

    Lauren says research funding is incredibly difficult to come by right now and that this award provides her with an immense sense of pride and freedom. "This is one of the highest honours a graduate student can receive. It will enable me to ask and answer research questions that might not have been possible. It will place me in a competitive position when it comes time to seek my post-doctoral position. And, it will be an important step towards my goal of establishing my own research laboratory." 

    While Lauren is thinking to the future, she fully understands the importance of better understanding how diet, gut microbes, lifestyle and genetics contributes to the development of IBD and colorectal cancer today. The CDHF is proud to support her efforts and looks forward to the results of her research.

  • Nathalie Vergnolle

    CDHF Research Awards Advance Careers

    In 2001, Dr. Nathalie Vergnolle received a two year New Investigator Establishment Grant from the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF) that helped the young researcher advance her career. 

    Co-sponsored by the CAG and Altana, the award provided at a total of $100,000 and allowed Nathalie, who is now Associate Professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of Calgary, to rapidly establish a fully functioning laboratory and begin her research in earnest. 

    Nathalie says the grant was extremely important because it relieved her of the burden of having to secure necessary funds to set up her facility and begin building solid, preliminary data. The funds were used to equip a newly established laboratory, pay the salary of a technician, and run experiments on the role of protease-activated receptors in colitis. 

    Nathalie notes that being a new investigator can be challenging. It takes time to become established because it is necessary to first secure funds to construct a lab before new experimental work can be conducted. 

    The grant provided by the CDHF had a definite impact. Nathalie says the funding influenced her decision to stay in Canada; allowed her the opportunity to gain time and confidence; provided good support for her research career; and, has enhanced ongoing opportunities to apply for larger operating grants from the CIHR. 

    Dr. Vergnolle's laboratory is currently investigating the role of proteases and their receptors in gastroenterological diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Diseases and Irritable Bowel Syndrome which represent an important burden on the Canadian economy. The general objective of the research is to define whether protease and their receptors can constitute targets for the development of new therapeutic avenues for the treatment of GI diseases.

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