Each year, Michael Smith Health Research BC (MSHR BC) selects a handful of researchers for their Scholar Program. The Scholar Program is designed to support early career researchers as they establish independent research careers, form their own research teams, and develop research programs that advance cutting-edge health solutions. MSHR BC is pleased to name 26 exceptional BC-based health researchers as their 2022 award recipients.

Drs. Carl de Boer and Dena Shahriari are two of those award recipients. Their projects have been selected to receive funding to transform the future of healthcare.

Assistant Professor  |  SBME

Project title: Using high-throughput experiments and machine learning to understand the role of non-coding mutations in cancer

Cancer is caused by mutations in the DNA that cause a patient’s cells to grow out of control. Some of these cancer-causing mutations change how genes are regulated; that is, which genes are turned on or off in the cell. Essentially all cancers have activated the TERT gene because TERT is essential for cancer growth.

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We understand TERT regulation better than most genes, but even here we cannot predict how mutations alter TERT expression. Overall, we do not understand which genes or mutations can promote cancer via altered gene regulation.

Our work aims to learn the code that cancer cells use to interpret regulatory mutations. We will make many artificial mutations in large scale, and measure how much each mutation affects the amount of gene made. We will model how the cells interpret these mutations using a computer, and apply the model to find new cancer mutations. We will these computer models to discover how often mutations alter gene regulation in cancer, and highlight genes whose regulation is important in particular cancers. In the long-term, our work will allow us to better diagnose and treat cancer by showing how a particular patient’s tumor’s mutations alter gene regulation and cancer growth.

Assistant Professor  |  SBME & Orthopaedics

Project title: Light and drug delivery coupled with biomaterials to improve motor function after spinal cord injury in animal models

Spinal cord injury (SCI) is a debilitating condition with no available cure directly affecting ~80,000 Canadians. The major challenges to overcome include:

  1. i) the limited spontaneous regeneration of nerve fibers (axons) after the injury;
  2. ii) scar tissue formation at the injury site (lesion), which inhibits the growth of axons;
  3. iii) the difficulty in guiding axons to grow across the lesion.

The present work proposes a novel solution that combines optical stimulation technology and biomaterials to promote axonal growth, inhibit the formation of scar tissue using targeted drug delivery, and guide growing axons across the lesion. My team has developed fully implantable multifunctional neural probes for the delivery of both light and drugs to the spinal cord injury site as well as biomaterials to guide the growth to axons across the lesion. The MSFHR Scholar Program would support our work to integrate these strategies and create a therapy that helps us understand the combined effects of light stimulation, drug delivery, and axon guidance on motor function recovery after SCI in animal models. The outcomes will support treatment development for SCI based on a better mechanistic understanding of regeneration.

Congratulations to Carl and Dena on receiving 2022 MSHR BC Scholar Awards!