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From nanoparticles to knowledge archipelagos, UVic researchers move the needle on health

February 09, 2024

Four UVic scholars have been awarded a total of $6.61 million from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research Fall 2023 Project Grant competition. They represent four distinct areas of research that will advance planetary, community and personal health.

Indigenous resurgence creates archipelagos of knowledge

Hōkūlani Aikau stands in front of shrubs.
Hōkūlani Aikau

Nominated Principal Applicant: Hōkūlani Aikau

“Archipelagos of Indigenous-led Resurgence for Planetary Health-Proof-of-concept: Actualizing Indigenous determinants of planetary health by supporting the reciprocal relationships among Indigenous Peoples, their places, Nation, and cultural contexts, and networking and amplifying localized efforts through visiting, sharing, and trans-national Indigenous diplomacy”

Funded: $2.295 million

The evidence is unequivocal: the trifecta of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution are the greatest threat to human health and wellbeing, and the health of the planet. Indigenous Peoples are addressing this crisis by sustaining knowledge systems and regenerative practices; stewarding biodiversity; activism that is stopping or delaying greenhouse gas pollution.

Hōkūlani Aikau, a professor in the School of Indigenous Governance, and a multidisciplinary collaborative team of Indigenous scholars will examine the value of and protocol for sharing place-based evidence of Indigenous-led projects that aim to improve planetary and human health.

The five case studies, or islands, focus on restoring cedar cultivation and carving in the Pacific Northwest; the songs, dances, and lessons derived from the Buffalo on the Great Plains; traditional land-based leadership-development practices in Hawai’i; community-based health practices in the Mariana Islands; and Indigenous farming, forestry and fishing practices for sustainable business in Aotearoa.

Aikau and her collaborators expect that these “islands” will show Indigenous-led resurgence can improve planetary and human health within their geographical and cultural contexts. And significantly, the team will create a systems-change model that connects individual projects into an archipelago of sharing and transformation.

“We anticipate,” says Aikau, “that our research-, creation-, and action-oriented processes and an Indigenous-guided evaluation framework can help to create the kind of momentum and impact that is needed to secure our collective futures.”

Going big by going small

Devika Chithrani in lab holding testube
Devika Chithrani

Nominated Principal Applicant: Devika Chithrani

“Exploiting the full potential of cancer radiotherapy using a novel combined treatment approach to treat locally advanced tumors”

Funded: $612,000

Radiotherapy is one of the main treatments for cancer, with more than half of cancer patients potentially benefitting from it. However, explains Devika Chithrani, we are currently at the limit of radiation doses to avoid or minimize normal tissue toxicity. Clearly, Chithrani says, we need new methods to further enhance the local radiation dose while reducing side effects to cancer patients.  

“If we can enhance the radiation dose given directly to the tumour,” she says, “it will have a tremendous potential to maximize the effect on the tumour and minimize the dose received by normal tissue.” 

This new project involves a unique combination of two radiation dose enhancers: gold nanoparticles and the drug docetaxel. The gold nanoparticles specifically target tumour cells and react with the radiation to kill those cells only. Meanwhile, the chemotherapeutic docetaxel, delivered straight to the tumour via a lipid nanoparticle system, will have rendered the tumour cells more sensitive to the radiation. 

This synergistic approach will go a step further too. By using three-dimensional tissue models in the lab, the scientists can examine the effect of the treatment better before testing in animal models. Chithrani has shown that these three-dimensional models can be a very good tool for testing therapeutics while significantly reducing the cost of research. Finally, these tumour models will play a major role in accelerating the testing of novel drugs before their implementation in the clinic. 

“This project builds on earlier research into gold nanoparticles, docetaxel and prostate cancer cells,” says Chithrani, “and synergizes them with new advances in lipid nanoparticle delivery of docetaxel, targeting specific receptors in tumour cells for stronger uptake of the gold and the drug, and three-dimensional tissue models to give us the most accurate results possible.” 

Addressing inequities in Two-Spirit/LGBTQQIA+ health

Nathan Lachowsky
Nathan Lachowsky

Nominated Principal Applicant: Nathan Lachowsky

“Our Health: A Community-Based Participatory Study of Sexual and Reproductive Health of Two-Spirit and LGBTQQIA+ People Across Canada”

Funded: $2.61 million

Two-Spirit/LGBTQQIA+ communities have been overlooked in mainstream sexual and reproductive health research and their access to care is often limited. This is exacerbated for community members who are Indigenous, Black, or People of Colour. And then made worse yet by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Current public health surveillance,” explains lead researcher Nathan Lachowsky, “doesn’t provide knowledge on sexual and reproductive health status, access nor care needs for 2S/LGBTQQIA+ communities. At the same time, existing community-led research on this topic has been local or regional.”

This four-year country-wide participatory project will support and advance community-driven, evidence-based advocacy and efforts to change policy. The research team will estimate the prevalence of the problem using indicators prioritized by the community, identify population-level inequities and build research and health leadership capacity within and amongst these marginalized communities.

Lachowsky points out that community partnership made this research possible. The Community Based Research Centre promotes the health of Two-Spirit and LGBTQQIA+ people through research and intervention development and has provided strong in-kind contributions to this project.

As befits community-centred research, the project’s deliverables will reach diverse stakeholders via a variety of platforms including plain language and technical reports and webinars as well as high-impact academic publications.

Also, says Lachowsky, “Our knowledge translation will include dynamic data visualizations and a 2S/LGBTQQIA+ community event. Together, we’ll advance community governance and democratization of data.”

Feeding cells to fight cancer

Julian Lum and students in lab
Photo credit: BC Cancer Foundation. L to R: Gillian Carlton, PhD candidate; Kesia Titosky, graduate student; Tian Zhao, PhD candidate; Julian Lum; Samantha Punch, research assistant; Jessica Morgan, graduate student; Sarah McPherson, PhD candidate

Nominated Principal Applicant: Julian Lum

“Metabolic Insights into Immune Suppression in Ovarian Cancer”

Funded: $1.1 million

Immunotherapy is a life-saving alternative way to treat cancer. One type of treatment called chimeric antigen receptor T (CAR-T) cell therapy has produced impressive long-lasting responses in late-stage blood cancers. However ovarian cancers, so far, resist immunotherapy. 

Previous research has shown that the cancer cells are interfering with the nutrition that the immune cells need to function. But what exactly, wonders Julian Lum, are those nutrients? 

“We need to know what nutrients to consider for CAR-T cell engineering,” Lum says. "So far, this remains a black box.”

In this project, Lum and his team will map out the nutrients that block the critical cancer-fighting properties of CAR-T cells using a specialized technology called 13C metabolite tracing. What they learn will be an essential step toward creating a translation path that will allow oncologists to use CAR-T cells to more effectively treat patients with ovarian cancer.  

It's an exciting proposition, Lum adds. “We now have an opportunity to use breakthrough genetic engineering technology to make specific immune cells more ‘nutritionally fit’ and rigorous in destroying tumours.”