Advancing high-risk, high-reward research

Research funding

Advancing high-risk, high-reward research

Queen's researchers receive $1 million to pursue innovative ideas that could lead to game-changing impacts for health research.

By Kayla Dettinger, Special Projects Officer

June 4, 2024


Collage of recipients' headshots

Clockwise from top left: Drs. Chris McGlory, Kimberly Dunham-Snary, Graeme Howe, Richard Oleschuk, Lindsay Fitzpatrick, Katrina Gee, and Laura Wells.

The research challenging the frontiers of medical science has received a significant investment from the federal government through the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF). In an announcement for the NFRF Exploration program by Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of National Revenue, on behalf of François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, and Mark Holland, Minister of Health, $33 million will be invested to advance exploratory research. Four research projects at Queen’s have secured a total of $1 million from the Exploration program to pursue new avenues into research for preventing loss of skeletal muscle mass, combatting antimicrobial resistance, treating chronic wounds, and improving success of implantable medical devices.

“The investments announced today help bring world-leading researchers together to work on innovative research projects that could have significant impacts,” says the Honourable Minister Champagne. “By bringing disciplines together in unexpected ways, we are responding to the challenges Canada and the world are facing.”

The NFRF Exploration program inspires high-risk, high-reward and interdisciplinary research. Researchers supported by the program are encouraged to think outside of the box and undertake research that would defy current paradigms, brings disciplines together in unexpected ways, and has the potential to be disruptive or deliver game-changing impacts. The funded projects from Queen’s will receive the maximum value of support, $250,000 over two years.

“Queen’s researchers are pushing the frontiers of research and innovation,” says Nancy Ross, Vice-Principal (Research). “NFRF Exploration provides the critical support needed for our researchers to pursue ideas that defy convention and explore new perspectives to solve the world’s most significant challenges.”

Exploring health frontiers

Consuming fish oil is believed to help prevent cardiovascular disease. There is growing evidence that an active ingredient in fish oil – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – also has muscle anabolic properties in animals. However, it is unknown if EPA could also potentially enhance skeletal muscle mass and strength in older adults, which is linked to many positive health outcomes. Chris McGlory (Kinesiology and Health Studies) and Kimberly Dunham-Snary (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) are leading a team that will test this hypothesis, potentially opening a new avenue of treatment across a range of diseased states including aging, diabetes, and cancer. At the same time, the team will address a traditional barrier to studying skeletal muscle mitochondria. Typically, invasive procedures and specialist expertise are required to get samples. The team will test the possibility that blood platelet mitochondrial function can mimic that of skeletal muscle, meaning a simple blood sample could be a surrogate to a muscle biopsy. If this connection can be confirmed, then the team’s discovery could become a powerful new tool to revolutionize clinical and experimental practice.

Directed evolution is an incredibly powerful process to identify biomolecules with new or improved properties for use as therapeutics or industrial applications. However, the gene diversification that occurs during directed evolution generates extremely large mutant libraries that renders the process time-consuming requiring many sub-culturing steps. Graeme Howe (Chemistry) and Richard Oleschuk (Chemistry) are developing a new screening platform for directed evolution that will eliminate the need for sub-culturing, decreasing the process time while still enabling high-throughput evaluation screening. The team will apply their expertise in analytical and organic chemistry, microbiology, enzymology, data science, and machine learning to develop the new platform. Using this new platform the team aims to evolve an industrially useful biocatalyst that can produce valuable esters and lactones (common moieties in drugs) from affordable precursors. Additionally, they will also use the platform to screen variants of known genetically encoded antibiotics for new and improved therapeutic activities to combat the rising tide of antimicrobial resistance.

Diabetic foot ulcers (DFUs) are a debilitating complication of diabetes that will affect up to 24 per cent of people with diabetes. They also account for 70 per cent of all amputations in Canadian hospitals. Lindsay Fitzpatrick (Chemical Engineering) and co-Principal Investigator Valerie Ward (University of Waterloo) are leading a team that will develop a sustainable wound dressing for DFUs using genetically engineered living microalgae to resolve chronic inflammation and promote wound closure. Chronic wounds, such as DFUs, are of particular concern because they do not progress through the normal stages of wound healing due to chronic hypoxia (low levels of oxygen) and inflammation. Applying their expertise in biomedical engineering, chemistry, microbiology, genetic engineering, and immunology, the team is designing a dressing that enables adjustable, light-dependent oxygen production to mitigate wound hypoxia and in situ production of an omega-3 fatty acid derivative that can help promote the resolution of chronic inflammation. This novel photosynthetic, pro-resolving wound dressing is a high-risk effort that could greatly improve chronic wound care, benefiting individuals with DFUs, pressure ulcers, and slow-healing wounds. This sustainable, bioactive dressing also utilizes renewable resources without relying on human-derived stem cells or neonatal tissues and will pave the way for in situ production of other therapeutic molecules in future research. 

Some medical devices, whether sex-specific (IUDs) or universal (surgical mesh, hip replacements, etc.), produce harm in women and have bad reputations as the subject of costly legal challenges. However, as the body adapts to the foreignness of a medical device, it is not known if sex and sex hormones undermine device safety or effectiveness. Laura Wells (Chemical Engineering) and Katrina Gee (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) will lead a team to use surgical mesh as a prototype to develop humanized cellular and tissue models to test sex-specific immune responses to implantable medical devices. Their proposal will integrate sex-focused immunological data with a detailed probing of socially accepted definitions of patient outcomes to better define device failure/success. By challenging the conventional 'one size fits all' approach to device manufacturing, their research validates sex as a biological factor in device performance. This effort not only addresses theoretical concerns about greater female inflammatory potential but also seeks to untangle the complexities contributing to device failure in women. Ultimately, their findings could lead to improvements in testing and approval processes for medical devices, despite potential challenges from industry interests.

To learn more about these and other NFRF-funded projects, visit the Canada Research Coordinating Committee website.

Health and Medicine
Physical Sciences and Engineering
Arts and Science
Health Sciences
Smith Engineering
Good Health and Well-Being
Partnerships for the Goals