Lakehead University and Health Research Institute team exploring new diagnostic drugs for cancer

Dr. Jinqiang Hou

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has provided a Lakehead University and Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute team with a $98,655 grant to develop new drugs that will help prevent, diagnose and manage cancer.

In Canada, cancer is the leading cause of death, which is why Dr. Jinqiang Hou, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Lakehead University and Research Chair at the Health Research Institute, believes an effective diagnostic method would improve the quality of life of many people while reducing health care costs.

“Our research aims to design and prepare novel diagnostic imaging agents that could potentially improve prevention, early diagnosis and management of cancer,” said Dr. Hou.

Dr. Hou is working with Dr. Michael Campbell, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Lakehead and a Research Chair at the Health Research Institute, and Dr. Justin Jiang, a Professor in Chemistry at Lakehead.

While a biopsy is the only way to diagnose most types of cancer with any level of certainty, biopsies are invasive. Dr. Hou and his team are exploring a non-invasive detection method known as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) imaging.

“By developing an imaging agent that targets receptors on the surface of cells that are highly expressed in many cancers, our research has the potential to develop the next generation of accurate cancer diagnostics,” he said.

Dr. Hou thanked CFI for the grant, which will allow the team to purchase equipment that will significantly improve productivity and speed up the research progress.

“This generous funding from the CFI strengthens our patient-centred research program and supports our researchers to find solutions to regional health care challenges – solutions that often have global applications,” said Jean Bartkowiak, President and CEO of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre and CEO of the Health Research Institute. “The results of this research can potentially provide our patients with more personalized care and better outcomes,” he added.

Dr. Andrew P. Dean, Lakehead’s Vice-President, Research and Innovation, also thanked CFI for the funding and said he is, once again, exceptionally proud of the research happening at Lakehead University and the Health Research Institute.

“This research has the potential to improve the quality of care for many cancer patients as well as reduce health care costs,” he said.

New Leader Appointed for Thunder Bay Regional Health Science Centre and Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute

Dr. Rhonda Crocker Ellacott

Dr. Rhonda Crocker Ellacott has been appointed as the President & Chief Executive Officer of Thunder Bay Regional Health Science Centre and Chief Executive Officer of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute, effective November 23, 2020. The announcement was made today by Matt Simeoni, Board Chair Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre and Chair of the CEO Selection Committee, and Dr. Andrew Dean, Board Chair of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute.

“This is excellent news for our Hospital and Health Research Institute. The Board is absolutely confident that Rhonda is the right person to lead our Hospital through the development of a new strategic plan and health system transformation,” said Simeoni. “She is a highly respected and proven leader, as well as a champion of patients and families, as demonstrated by her three decades of growth and success.”

“Rhonda is a visionary who is driven by advancing and enhancing patient experiences. Her comprehensive background in the health care system and specific knowledge of and passion for Northwestern Ontario make her the ideal person to inspire and guide ongoing innovation in health research at our Health Research Institute,” added Dean.

Rhonda is currently the CEO of North West Local Health Integration Network (LHIN), and CEO of North East LHIN and Transitional Regional Lead for Ontario Health in the North Region. She was formerly the Executive Vice President, Patient Services and Chief Nursing Executive of Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre and Chief Executive Officer, Nipigon District Memorial Hospital. Many of Rhonda’s accomplishments contributed to the growth and enhanced quality of health care. For example, Rhonda introduced Patient and Family Centred Care (PFCC) at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, nurtured it into an organizational philosophy, and has since expanded it to ensure the voices of patients and families influence health care access and delivery throughout Northern Ontario.

As a seasoned health care executive with over 30 years of progressive health care experience in a plethora of complex health systems, Rhonda has led complex systems level changes, advanced health system transformation, advanced quality improvement, inspired and developed innovations and garnered the trust of teams and colleagues. Rhonda has a track record of motivating vision, establishing strong and effective teams, empowering leadership, and nurturing and developing partnerships and networks across the broader health system.

Rhonda is inspired and honoured to begin this new chapter with the Hospital and Health Research Institute. “The values, collaboration and dedication of staff are familiar and match my personal principles. I look forward to connecting again with the dedicated staff, professional staff, scientists, Patient Family Advisors and volunteers. In this new role, I will rely heavily on their collective knowledge, skills, and commitment to safe, quality care as we advance our vision of being Healthy Together.”

Late last year, Jean Bartkowiak announced his intention to retire from his role as President & Chief Executive Officer of Thunder Bay Regional Health Science Centre and Chief Executive Officer of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute. We are grateful that he will continue to provide outstanding leadership until November 20, 2020.

Lakehead researchers receiving $2.3 million from Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council

Dr. Alla Reznik

Lakehead University professors are receiving more than $2.3 million from Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for bold research exploring advancements in robotics, X-ray imaging technology, radio frequencies, and other important projects that will improve the lives of people around the world.

One of these recipients is Dr. Alla Reznik, a Lakehead Professor in Physics, Scientist at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute, and Canada Research Chair in Physics of Molecular Imaging. Dr. Reznik is receiving $205,000 to examine a new approach to X-ray imaging over five years.

This new approach, using photoconductive material lead oxide, will improve the quality of health care through more effective and less invasive imaging connected with cardiac intervention and early breast cancer diagnosis.

“Minimally invasive cardiac intervention includes a whole spectrum of surgical procedures ranging from cardiac catheterization to aortic valve replacement,” said Dr. Reznik. “Cardiac intervention procedures are long and are commonly carried out under X-ray guidance, which results in significant exposure of patients and medical personnel to X-rays. Hence, the need here is to develop a much more sensitive than currently available X-ray imaging detector that will navigate cardiac interventions under significantly lower doses.”

A common tool in breast cancer screening is 2D X-ray mammography, which takes an X-ray image of the breast while a medical professional compresses it between two plates. Although mammography reduces breast cancer mortality, its specificity for cancer detection is low.

“The need here is to develop a 3D visualization of the breast that will minimize the masking effect of overlapping fibroglandular tissue,” said Dr. Reznik.

Over the period of the grant, the proposed program will train three post-doctoral fellows, two PhD students and three Master of Science students. In addition, five high performing undergraduate students (each for one year) will be hired to participate in an annual Summer School on Medical Imaging to gain research experience.

“Dr. Reznik is a key contributor to our health research program that is vital to advancing our academic mission and even more importantly, to improving the health of the population,” said Jean Bartkowiak, President and CEO of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre and CEO of the Health Research Institute. “Health research, like that of Dr. Reznik, provides patients with the opportunity to participate in research activity that helps design the care of the future and to access equipment at the frontier of health technology development. I would like to thank NSERC for recognizing the potential of Dr. Reznik’s research.”

To read the full announcement, visit https://bit.ly/LakeheadU-NSERC-June17-2020

New Frontiers in Research Fund in Exploration Grant

Dr. Zubair Fadlullah

Dr. Zubair Fadlullah, a Lakehead University-Health Research Institute Research Chair in Smart Health Technology, is one of two Lakehead University professors who have been awarded grants from the federal New Frontiers in Research Fund in Exploration to pursue important work that will benefit Canada and beyond.

Dr. Fadlullah is receiving $250,000 over two years to investigate the use of drones to address the lack of reliable internet access and health care connectivity in rural areas in Northern Ontario. The aim of this research is to address both the urban-rural digital and health care gaps in an interdisciplinary manner.

“Connectivity is a key enabler for providing smart health care by monitoring and managing physical/mental health conditions and addiction trends,” Dr. Fadlullah wrote in his research proposal.
To tackle the digital divide issue, this research will use a robust communication infrastructure by leveraging Unmanned Aerial Vehicles such as drones, equipped with communication and energy harvesting modules as well as robotic arms, to form an agile network.

To address the health care gap in Northern Ontario, the drone-aided network, coupled with cost-effective device-to-device relays composed of smartphones, will offload the health data collected by Internet of Things and wearable devices deployed at the remote communities.

Dr. Fadlullah will carry out the research at two locations: the preliminary research investigation and experiment will occur at a Lakehead University research lab and the field experiment will be carried out at one of the Keewaytinook Okimakanak First Nations communities.

He will work with co-principal investigator Dr. Vijay Mago, an associate professor in Computer Science at Lakehead who is assisting with data analytics, and with co-applicant Keewaytinook Okimakanak eHealth Telemedicine, which will provide insight as they work toward implementing a successful solution.

To read the original announcement, visit: https://bit.ly/NewFrontiersinResearchFund-May2020

Dr. Guillem Dayer and the “New Wave” of Young Scientists

Thunder Bay's Newest Scientists

Dr. Guillem Dayer is part of the “new wave” of young scientists in Thunder Bay. Two years ago, he moved here to join the Zehbe Group at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute. He saw working with Dr. Ingeborg Zehbe as a great opportunity. And the story of how he got here is fascinating.

Dr. Dayer grew up in the east-central African country of Burundi. His family moved back to his father’s home country of Switzerland in 1994 during Burundi’s civil war. He studied biology at university (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne); malaria and giardia, both parasites common to Africa, were obvious research interests for Dr. Dayer.

“That’s what triggered me to work in the parasitical field,” he said.

Dr. Dayer came to Canada to continue his studies and earned his PhD from Trent University in 2017. He joined the Zehbe Group two years ago on a postdoctoral fellowship to research cervical cancer and oral cancer. What attracted Dr. Dayer was the role of proteins from the human papillomavirus (HPV) in those diseases and how to target them effectively.

“I was always specifically interested in working with proteins,” he said.

Last November, Dr. Dayer was awarded a prestigious Mitacs grant to investigate how to prevent the E6 protein in HPV from blocking a cell’s immune system. Normally, an infection will trigger an alarm in a cell to stop the spread. But E6 blocks that alarm. The infection multiplies and causes more mutations, which can lead to cervical and other cancers. Dr. Dayer’s research will try to find a way to interrupt the E6 protein and turn the alarm back on.

His work builds upon research by Dr. Ingeborg Zehbe, as well as two other of her mentees, Dr. Melissa Togtema and Dr. Robert Jackson. Their research, funded in part by the Health Sciences Foundation, helped discover that the E6 protein is the main culprit in cervical cancer development.

Dr. Togtema and Dr. Jackson are also a part of our new wave of scientists. Unlike Dr. Dayer, they are local – something that would be unheard of even 15 years ago. Dr. Togtema grew up in Manitouwadge and completed her Honours Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Toronto before moving back to study with Dr. Zehbe. She received her master’s degree in August 2013 and then her doctorate in November 2018. Dr. Jackson grew up in Thunder Bay and got his Honours Bachelor of Science at Lakehead University. He joined Dr. Zehbe’s lab in 2010 and received his master’s degree in 2012 and his doctorate in May 2019. He moved to become a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Arizona.

Dr. Dayer may not be local originally, but he plans to make Thunder Bay his home. With Thunder Bay’s unique research partnerships between the Health Research Institute, the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, Lakehead University, NOSM, and others, it’s an ideal research environment for him.
“I felt like there was a lot of potential here for this project,” he said. “We can’t do research solely in a university or lab setting. We’ll need to work with a medical facility (for clinical trials) at some point.”
Dr. Dayer hopes to secure a professorship at Lakehead and continue his research here.

You can help support local research, too! Donate online at healthsciencesfoundation.ca/donate-now or call our Donation Centre at (807) 345-4673.

New Research Grant to Fund Cervical Cancer Treatment in Development in Thunder Bay

Dr. Guillem Dayer, a researcher at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute, won a prestigious Mitacs grant to continue research into new cervical cancer treatments. As part of the Zehbe Group, his research will build on the work of Dr. Ingeborg Zehbe, Dr. Melissa Togtema, and Dr. Robert Jackson into cervical cancer- and oral cancer-fighting molecules.

“The project that I’m working on will determine how we can use these molecules as potential therapies,” Dr. Dayer said.

Officially, Dr. Dayer’s grant is for the “development, implementation, and validation of new anti-E6 therapeutics for the treatment of HPV-associated cancer”. As complicated as that sounds, the concept is fairly simple.

Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). It is a common virus that almost all sexually active people get at some point in their lives. Most people clear the virus, just as they would a cold. An “alarm” activates and each infected cell shuts down. However, sometimes the infection doesn’t go away, which could lead to cancer development.

“The more these cells multiply, the more mutations that can occur and then make things worse – it can become a malignant cancer,” Dr. Dayer said.

Thanks in part to the Zehbe Group’s research, we now know that a specific protein – the E6 protein – blocks the alarm in the cell. You can picture it as bank robbers spraying security cameras. If security doesn’t know there are robbers in the bank, they won’t know anything is wrong.

“The strategy is to target the E6 protein,” Dr. Dayer said. “If we block E6, the alarm will switch back on. The cells will ‘kill’ themselves, if you like, before they can do any harm.”

Dr. Dayer will study this approach using cells in the lab. Years from now, his research could lead to clinical trials. Treatments could use another technology developed in part at the Health Research Institute – HIFU (high-intensity focused ultrasound). HIFU helps target only affected cells. The molecules designed to block the E6 protein would be encapsulated in “microbubbles” and sent to the affected area. HIFU would heat up the bubbles until they burst, releasing the molecules. The result is personalized, more targeted treatments to improve patient care.

But that’s years away. For the moment, Dr. Dayer is focused on Step 1: finding the best way of blocking E6. “This research wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Foundation, TBRHRI, Mitacs and Lakehead University,” Dr. Dayer said. “I would like to thank everyone who supports local research in our region.”

You can help our scientists make new discoveries, too. Your donation to the Health Sciences Discovery Fund will support all of our researchers find new treatments to help patients in Northwestern Ontario. Call our Donation Centre at (807) 345-4673 or donate online at healthsciencesfoundation.ca/donate

Health Research Institute Board Member Profile: John Dixon

John Dixon

My research vision is to embed principles of two-eyed seeing into the development and translation of evidence-based health and social interventions for Indigenous led practice, holistic community-based prevention efforts, harm reduction, and changes that support the de-commodification of First Nation peoples in the health care system.

Substance misuse issues in our region are complex social and health issues. In order to be effective, interventions require evidence-based approaches, an understanding of the biological, psychosocial and social factors and an acknowledgement of the important impact of cultural, societal, and policy contexts.

I am honored to represent Dilico Anishinabek Family Care as a member of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute Board and to bring a different lens to the conversation. I was inspired to join the Board to support work that makes a difference for our region, to reduce health inequities, but more importantly to inform and enhance interventions and services that improve population health at a systems level in the North.

In terms of the Health Research Institute itself, it is important for people to understand the diversity of research that is underway to inform the future of the health care system and to foster innovation in the delivery of care to populations in the North. The Health Research Institute is rich in collaborative partnerships and relationships that allow for the cultivation of a talented landscape of learners and scientists interacting and solving some of our most pressing societal concerns while building the knowledge base to support future work.

I am a proud band member of the Mississaugas of the Credit and father of three children. I have 20 years of experience in the addiction and mental health sector, spent primarily working with Indigenous populations. I have been honored to serve as the Director of Mental Health and Addictions for Dilico Anishinabek Family Care since 2013. In this role, I have advocated and collaborated tirelessly to build the evidence base for cultural interventions and to build out a continuum of addiction and mental health care that is responsive to the complex wellness needs of the people we serve. I was born and raised in Port Dover, Ontario and relocated to attend Lakehead University and fell in love with the lifestyle and climate of Thunder Bay.

Hospital’s President and CEO and CEO of the Health Research Institute Announces Planned Retirement

Jean Bartkowiak

Jean Bartkowiak, President & CEO of Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre and CEO of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute, plans to retire at the end of his contract in January, 2021.

“Mr. Bartkowiak has always been transparent regarding his planned retirement and remains committed to providing effective leadership as he completes his term,” said Dr. Andrew Dean, Chair, Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute Board of Directors. “While we regret his upcoming departure, it provides opportunity to celebrate Mr. Bartkowiak’s significant contributions to our Hospital and Health Research Institute.”

The Boards of Directors are highly pleased by Mr. Bartkowiak’s performance and ongoing commitment to Hospital patients, their families and staff as well as to the Health Research Institute. His leadership has garnered an impressive list of achievements, including the voluntary integration of the Northwest Health Alliance, the development and expansion of several regional clinical programs that foster safe, quality, specialized care close to home, opening the Transitional Care Unit at Hogarth Riverview Manor to improve patient flow, organizational restructuring to better meet the needs of our Hospital, partnering with Indigenous leaders and communities to advance their health priorities, the fostering of “smart health” research, and an accreditation score of 98.4% from Accreditation Canada.

Mr. Bartkowiak is committed to leading several more important activities prior to his departure. His priorities for his next and final year include the development of the next strategic plan that will focus on enhancing patient journeys, fostering a safe culture for our Indigenous patients, improving staff engagement, building on system integration, enhancing the Hospital and Research Institute’s research and academic role, and ensuring the Hospital and Health Research Institute’s financial viability.

“Our skilled and knowledgeable senior leaders provide strategic guidance to achieve the best possible experiences and outcomes for patients and families. They will be instrumental as Mr. Bartkowiak fulfills his goals for the next year,” said Matt Simeoni, Chair, Thunder Bay Regional Health Science Centre Board of Directors. “Under their combined leadership and expertise, we are completely confident that our Hospital and Health Research Institute will continue to improve the provision of safe, quality, specialized acute care, and health care discovery during and after the transition period.”

Mr. Bartkowiak’s tenure is demonstrative that the Hospital and Research Institute’s CEO recruitment process results in strong, effective leadership. The comprehensive recruitment strategy will ensure the most suitable successor to help guide our organizations into a new era of health care.

To ensure a seamless transition, the recruitment process for a new President & CEO will begin in the spring of 2020, with the goal to welcome Mr. Bartkowiak’s successor in January, 2021.

Up-and-coming Thunder Bay researcher earns Mitacs & NCR-IRAP Award for Outstanding Commercialization

An up-and-coming researcher at Lakehead University, with strong ties to the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute, has been recognized for his innovative work to develop a cutting-edge medical imaging technology that delivers high-resolution pictures at a much lower dose of radiation, providing a breast-imaging alternative to mammography, positron emission tomography (PET) scan and other imaging devices.

The breakthrough work has earned Oleksandr Bubon the Mitacs & NCR-IRAP Award for Outstanding Commercialization, awarded by Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada for business and academia. The award was presented at a ceremony in Ottawa on November 26th, 2019.

Bubon — a postdoctoral fellow studying at Lakehead University under Dr. Alla Reznik, Canada Research Chair and Scientist at the Health Research Institute — is being recognized for developing a novel solid state imaging technology that exposes patients to 10 to 15 times less radiation than traditional PET scans. At the same time, the technology delivers highly sensitive, accurate images that can detect extremely small tumours in their earliest stages of cancer, particularly in women who have denser breast tissue than average.

“It is an honour to receive this award and have my research recognized in this way,” said Bubon, who serves as Medical Chief Technology Officer of Radialis Medical, a joint venture of Lakehead University and Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute co-founded by Bubon and Reznik in February 2016. “There is a huge need for this lower-dose, high-resolution imaging device and we’re only just beginning to see the incredible potential this technology has.”

The technology is currently being developed and tested by Radialis Medical. The latest prototype — a fully enclosed system on wheels — is in clinical trials at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto with validation results expected to be available before the end of the year. The company is now working to scale its manufacturing and quality control efforts, and expects to be firmly established as a medical device manufacturer ready to seek FDA and Health Canada approval by mid-2020, Bubon said.

The Mitacs & NCR-IRAP Award for Commercialization is presented to a Mitacs intern for an idea brought from research that is either on the market or soon to be commercialized. Bubon is one of eight Mitacs award winners nationally, chosen from thousands of researchers who take part in Mitacs programs each year. The remaining seven recipients were recognized for outstanding innovation or exceptional leadership in other areas of research.

“Innovation in Canada continues to be inspired by the groundbreaking work of up-and-coming researchers that touch all industry sectors and help to fuel the economy,” said Jennifer Wilkie, Mitacs interim CEO. “Their achievements are truly remarkable and Mitacs is honoured to support them, and broker important connections between industry, post-secondary institutions and government that make their leading-edge work possible.”

“We know that employers are looking for students and graduates with real-world experience so they can make an immediate impact in the workforce,” said Ross Romano, Minister of Colleges and Universities. “By working with Mitacs to support experiential learning and the innovative work of researchers like Oleksandr Bubon, we can help more people get the meaningful, hands-on learning opportunities they need to secure good jobs and support Ontario’s growing economy.”

For more information about the Mitacs awards and a full list of winners, visit www.mitacs.ca.

Lakehead University researcher, Health Research Institute scientist receiving more than $448k from the Canadian Cancer Society

Dr. Alla Reznik

A Lakehead University researcher and Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute scientist was awarded $448,800 from the Canadian Cancer Society to continue research into a new method of diagnosing breast cancer that may detect lesions earlier than current methods.

This Innovation to Impact grant will allow Dr. Alla Reznik to spend three years developing Positron Emission Mammography (PEM), molecular imaging equipment that may alleviate some uncertainty from breast cancer detection.

“Although X-ray mammography remains the gold standard of breast cancer screening, there is increasing awareness of a large cohort of women for whom anatomical X-ray imaging has reduced sensitivity,” said Dr. Reznik, a professor in Physics at Lakehead University and scientist at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute.

“This includes women with dense breasts and women with known intermediate and high risk factors for breast cancer,” said Dr. Reznik, who is also the Canada Research Chair in the Physics of Molecular Imaging.

The first clinical prototype of the PEM system is assembled, its imaging performance has been characterized in a laboratory setting, and it is now at the University Health Network-Princess Margaret Cancer Centre for awaiting clinical trials.

“This project will add advanced capabilities to the current PEM prototype, using data from our pilot studies as a guide,” Dr. Reznik added. “The next-generation device will have a better dynamic range to allow for a wide array of clinical tasks – ranging from low-dose screening to high-dose treatment follow-up – and will be tested in multiple clinical centres in Canada and the United States to prepare data to support wide-spread deployment.”

Dr. Andrew P. Dean, Lakehead’s Vice-President, Research and Innovation and Board Chair of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute, said Dr. Reznik’s innovative research could someday improve the health outcomes for women around the world.

“Thank you to the Canadian Cancer Society for awarding Dr. Reznik with this Innovation to Impact grant. Grants such as these are extremely important so that fundamental research can lead to better health outcomes for women,” he said.

“Dr. Reznik is a key contributor to our health research program that is vital to advancing our academic mission and even more importantly, to improving the health of the population,” said Jean Bartkowiak, President and CEO of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre and CEO of the Health Research Institute. “Health research, like that of Dr. Reznik, provides patients with the opportunity to participate in research activity that helps design the care of the future and to access equipment at the frontier of health technology development.”

Dr. Judy Bray, Vice-President, Research at the Canadian Cancer Society, said Dr. Reznik’s research could be very beneficial to women’s health and wellbeing.

“With one in eight Canadian women expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, there is a need for more accurate and sensitive screening methods so that we can detect and treat the cancer earlier,” Dr. Bray said.

“That’s why we are proud to fund Dr. Reznik’s work in making breast mammography a more reliable screening tool for all women, including those with dense breasts and those at increased risk for breast cancer. We are grateful to our generous donors who enable us to support innovative researchers like Dr. Reznik and help create a world where no Canadian fears cancer.”

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