University of Saskatchewan

September 22, 2014   

Two U of S Researchers Get $1 M. in Research Infrastructure Funding

March 08, 1999

A total of $1 million for new facilities and equipment will be awarded to two University of Saskatchewan researchers, thanks to a funding partnership involving the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the Saskatchewan government, and the U of S.

Dr. Chris Holmden, an assistant professor in the department of geological sciences, will receive $783,000 for new and upgraded lab facilities that will help make U of S a leading Canadian centre for geochemical isotope analysis. This is a field that helps scientists track environmental pollution and sheds light on the evolution of life on Earth.

Dr. Malvinder Singh, an assistant professor in the department of chemistry, will receive $218,525 for sophisticated equipment to help design new DNA-binding drugs. This could mean safer, lower-dose drugs to help fight diseases such as cancer and viral infections.

The CFI, an independent corporation set up by the federal government to boost Canada's capacity for research, will contribute a total of $286,738 for the two projects. These awards come from the CFI's New Opportunities Fund, which aims to provide equipment, computer software and other infrastructure to help launch the research careers of new faculty members in universities across Canada. The competition is open to new researchers who took up their first full-time academic appointment since July 1 of 1995.

The rest of the funding is to come from the Saskatchewan government and U of S. The apportionment of this funding is under discussion by the two parties.

Dr. Michael Corcoran, U of S vice-president of research, said he's excited to see the first CFI awards in a tight competition going to these promising new researchers. "The quality of the researchers selected by the CFI confirms that U of S has managed to attract excellent new faculty," he said.

A total of 214 awards valued at $36 million have been announced by the CFI under the New Opportunities Fund. Projects are selected by CFI national, multidisciplinary committees based on quality of research and suitability of the infrastructure; contribution to strengthening the capacity for innovation; and potential benefits of the research to Canada.

For more information, contact:
Kathryn Warden
Research Communications Officer
University of Saskatchewan
Phone: (306) 966-2506 Fax: (306) 966-8597



State-of-the-Art Clean Lab

Within a year, Chris Holmden plans to open a state-of-the-art "clean lab" -- a laboratory virtually free of airborne contaminants.

The lab, which would be only the second such university facility in Western Canada, would permit accurate measurements of minute quantities of trace metals in soil, rock, water and other geologic materials. It's key to research projects as varied as detecting the leaching of trace metals into Saskatchewan groundwater or figuring out the temperature of seas that once covered Saskatchewan.

"With the diversity of faculty expertise that we have here, this project will be one of the best and well-used clean lab facilities in Canada," says Holmden.

"The new clean lab will be worth its weight in gold in attracting new people, breaking new ground in trace analysis research, and being able to compete nationally for funding for costly new scientific instruments."

The existing clean lab in the department of geological sciences is one-fifth the size that's needed, he said. Constructed a decade ago when such facilities were not built metal-free, it is plagued by rusting problems which can contaminate samples. The new lab will be built entirely of plastic.

The lab will be over-pressurized to curtail the inflow of airborne particles from adjacent rooms. Large volumes of air will be forced through highly efficient filters to remove airborne particles such as dust that could contaminate samples. Researchers at work in the clean lab will wear low-lint lab coats, caps and booties.

Isotopic Fingerprints

Holmden also plans to expand and upgrade a lab for mass spectrometry, a field of research which involves measuring differences in the weights of atoms (called isotopes) in various elements. Isotopic analysis can be used to track certain pollutants through the ecosystem.

"The relative amounts of various isotopes of a given element constitute an `isotopic fingerprint,'" he said. "So if you measure the downstream level of a metal such as lead in a river, it's possible to trace the source of that lead by comparing the isotopic fingerprint of the lead in the downstream water with that of a suspected source upstream to determine if there is a definitive match."

This geochemical detective work could lead to charges against industrial polluters or simply enable companies to more effectively monitor their waste disposal.

The new facilities will also greatly enhance basic research into the evolution of life over time in response to Earth's changing environments.

"We don't have water that's 350 million years old, but we do have rocks and fossils that were formed in that water 350 million years ago which contain information about past environments, " he said.

"By using the isotopic fingerprint of elements like oxygen found in the tiny fossilized teeth of small, now-extinct creatures called conodonts, we can determine the isotopic composition of the sea waters in which these fossils were formed."

This could provide clues to the temperature and salinity of the water in the ancient seas that once inundated large regions of the continents, factors which have a big impact on what kinds of life forms prosper and the course of evolution.

For more information, contact:

Dr. Chris Holmden
(306) 966-5697 (phone)
(306) 966-8593 (FAX)



DNA-binding Designer Drugs

Advances in genetic research suggest that almost every form of human disease may be based on aberrant expression of particular genes -- so-called 'bad' genes, says chemistry professor Malvinder Singh.

He hopes to design new drugs that could specifically target and bind to disease-causing genes, blocking their expression. The new drugs would get at the cause -- not just the symptoms -- of disease.

"The origin of a disease lies with the message encoded within the DNA," he stressed. "If we can suppress that message, then we can hope for lower doses of drugs and more effective drugs," he said.

Potential World-Class Centre

This leading-edge research, which involves expertise in chemistry, biology, genetics and medicine, could eventually lead to a world-class centre at U of S for the design of a new generation of DNA-binding drugs that are gene-specific, he said.

He noted there are fewer than half a dozen research groups worldwide that are currently taking a similar multi-disciplinary, molecular approach to drug design.

His team is working on developing antibiotic-based chemical compounds that seek out and suppress the expression of defective DNA segments (ones that have been damaged by mutations or cancer-causing toxins in the environment). The chemical compounds have to be designed to bind only with the bad genes or they could damage the useful DNA at the same time.

"That's one of the limitations of existing DNA-binding cancer drugs," Singh said. "They just go for everything and that causes severe side effects. That's why existing drugs are reserved for the most serious cancer cases."

30 New Chemical Compounds

His team has recently come up with 30 new chemical compounds that bind to DNA and could potentially serve as molecular "on-off" switches for gene messaging. These findings were presented last June to the Canadian Society for Chemists at a conference in Whistler, B.C.

"This discovery turned out to be our lucky break that is helping us to further improve the design of these compounds. We're now evaluating these new compounds to see if they're as effective as we hope," he said.

"We also need to study how these chemical molecules affect the expression of a given gene. That's where working with molecular biologists and geneticists will help us."

Computer-aided Design

Singh hopes to get a powerful computer-aided design system that would permit 3-D modelling of the interaction between DNA molecules and those of chemical compounds. Lack of such equipment has seriously hampered the team's progress.

"This is very timely for me as I was beginning to get discouraged," he said. "The U of A chemistry department alone has eight of these. The fact U of S doesn't have one has limited me in doing things I've wanted to do since day one. Now I can explore my ideas to the fullest."

Other new equipment will permit higher resolution images from a state-of-the-art instrument that is used to view DNA molecules. There'll also be an ultra-low temperature (-78 degrees Celsius) freezer for safe storage of expensive enzymes and DNA samples.

Singh's current focus is basic research -- learning how molecules recognize one another. But if the new compounds prove effective in controlling disease-causing genes, he expects there'll be drug company interest and more highly skilled researchers will be attracted to U of S.

Currently, he has two graduate students and one undergraduate student working with him. The team collaborates with colleagues in pharmacy, biochemistry and medicine.

For more information, contact:

Dr. Malvinder Singh
(306) 966-4666 (phone)
306) 966-4730 (FAX)

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