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OVC Researchers Awarded $1.3 Million in Federal Funding

Ontario Veterinary College, University of GuelphResearchers at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) have received more than $1.3 million in federal funding to support projects in neuroscience, equine biosecurity, dairy cattle health, animal behavior, reproductive technologies and stem cell biology.

The projects are among dozens of U of G projects receiving more than $10 M over five years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

  • Prof. Giannina Descalzi, in OVC’s Biomedical Sciences department, investigates the molecular, cellular and genetic mechanisms involved in chronic pain development and maintenance. Although most research on neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and modify its connections, has focused on neurons, several other cell types also appear to be involved, says Descalzi. “Astrocytes are the most abundant cells in the central nervous system and recent evidence indicates that they are dynamic players in neuroplasticity.” Descalzi will use her NSERC Discovery Grant to explore the fundamental contributions of astrocyte-neuronal coupling in how the brain adapts to chronic pain.
  • Prof. Amy Greer, in OVC’s Population Medicine department, will use the NSERC Discovery Grant to further advance her team’s research into disease dynamics across complex agricultural networks, focusing on the movement of horses and opportunities for the spread of infectious diseases. “We will be collecting data to determine how network structure and human behaviour interact to influence opportunities for pathogens spread where horses are co-mingling, such as at horse shows,” says Greer. “This research will build upon current biosecurity standards documents for the equine sector, develop evidence-based recommendations that will support the Canadian equine industry in preparing emergency preparedness plans and allow more timely emergency response within the Canadian agricultural sector.”
  • Prof. Thomas Koch, in OVC’s Biomedical Sciences department, will use his NSERC Discovery Grant to further his exploration of animal stem cell biology for understanding tissue development, maintenance and therapeutic interventions. With his first NSERC Discovery Grant, Koch established a research program focused on understanding the role of microRNAs, short non-coding RNAs that regulate gene expression, in stem cell homeostasis, stem cell cartilage differentiation and synovial joint health biology (joints found in bones that move together, such in the knee). “Over the next five years, we plan to continue our exploration of miRNAs’ roles in forming cartilage and their utility as biomarkers of joint health, as well as initiating work exploring associations between miRNAs and chromosomal stability,” says Koch.
  • The legalization of cannabis in Canada, along with cannabis edibles, has increased concerns with accidental exposure in pets. Prof. Jibran Khokhar, in OVC’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, will use an NSERC Alliance award to further understanding of how exposure to cannabis impacts brain function and behaviour in rodent models of cannabis toxicity, and look at a potentially novel therapeutic approach to reduce THC-induced toxicity in animals. The work will capitalize on Khokhar’s expertise in studying the effects of cannabis exposure on the brain, cannabinoid pharmacology, and of drug-related toxicity.
  • Prof. Stephen LeBlanc, in OVC’s Population Medicine department, will further explore dairy cow reproductive health through his renewed NSERC Discovery Grant. Endometritis is a chronic inflammation of the cow’s uterine lining and significantly impacts fertility. “Aspects of neutrophil function, one of the first immune cells to travel to the site of infection, are either diminished or poorly regulated in dairy cows in the weeks just before and after calving, which appears to be an important contributor to the occurrence of uterine disease,” says LeBlanc. His work will focus on understanding the interactions between local inflammation in the uterus and systemic inflammation.
  • The ability to respond appropriately to stress is vital to maintain health. Extensive research over the last 20 years has demonstrated that stress can permanently affect the brain, altering patterns of behavior and interacting with the effects of the hormones involved in reproduction. Some of these same stress- and reproductive hormone-sensitive pathways appear also to be sensitive to the actions of chemicals in the environment. Prof. Neil MacLusky, in OVC’s Biomedical Sciences department, will use an NSERC Discovery Grant to explore the ways in which the effects of stress and reproductive hormones interact within the brain, to alter mechanisms of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and modify its connections, that are required for memory and normal behavioral function.
  • Prof. Pavneesh Madan, in OVC’s Biomedical Sciences department, has received an NSERC Research Tools and Instruments award to purchase a compact in vitro embryo culture incubator with time-lapse imaging system and software to monitor and predict bovine embryonic health and viability. This new method of embryo selection has been recently developed and banks on assessing the timing of specific events in embryo development through a non-invasive approach. “While the technique has yielded positive results in human medicine, it is a new approach for evaluating bovine embryos. We are aiming to be the first to use this technique for bovine embryo evaluation to see if we can select embryos for their developmental competence, viability and health,” says Madan.
  • Prof. Lee Niel, in OVC’s Population Medicine department, has received an NSERC Research Tools and Instruments award to purchase an Actigraph activity monitoring system. Niel and her co-applicants, OVC Prof. Amy Greer, Population Medicine, and Ontario Agricultural College Prof. Kate Shoveller, will use this equipment to automate behaviour observations for ongoing NSERC Discovery research aimed at improving nutrition, health and welfare for cats and dogs, and developing strategies to prevent infectious disease outbreaks in horses and other farm species. Activity sensors can record individual animal activity levels, as well as logging light levels and interactions with social partners and their environment. “Not only will this provide accurate, objective activity data that is critical to our research, it will help us to answer questions about the ways that animals interact with social partners and with environmental features such as feeders and rest areas, while also taking into account daily and seasonal variations in light levels,” adds Niel.
  • OVC Pathobiology professor Geoffrey Wood  will use his five-year Discovery award to look at connections between body size, longevity and the risk of developing cancer in various animals. Working with researchers at other Canadian institutions,  he’s  looking at  tumour suppressor  genes  in tissues and cell lines from long-lived mammals such as whales, parrots and bats. Many of these animals have multiple copies of these genes, while humans have only one.  By looking at how these genes regulate tumour development in various species, Wood hopes to help improve our understanding of cancer risk in humans and animals.