2020 Transformation project summaries

Following a highly competitive, multistage review process, the following seven large-scale research projects were selected for funding under the inaugural NFRF 2020 Transformation competition. Collectively, these world-leading, transformative, Canadian-led projects, featuring diverse, interdisciplinary and international research teams, will receive $144 million over six years, beginning in fiscal year 2021-22, to realize real and lasting change in their respective fields.

BIOSCAN: Tracing the Patterns of Life on a Changing Planet

Nominated principal investigator: Paul Hebert, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario | Total funding: $24 million

Global change is restructuring ecosystems on a planetary scale, creating an urgent need to track impacts on the Earth’s biosphere, which comprises over 10 million species. This is especially critical as the planet faces a potential mass global extinction, involving the loss of an eighth of all species by 2100. Until now, a global bio-observation system has been out of reach, but by using the power of DNA sequencers to discriminate species by reading short stretches of DNA, a solution has emerged. This new approach is revolutionizing our understanding of biodiversity.

The work of the BIOSCAN team will be a giant leap forward in tackling the looming species extinction crisis. Over its course, the BIOSCAN project will activate a global bio-surveillance system with participation from experts in diverse fields, ranging from ecological modeling and metagenomics to computer vision and machine learning. Extending technology advances developed by the Canadian-led International Barcode of Life (iBOL) Consortium and Guelph’s Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, the team will build core infrastructure to be shared globally. BIOSCAN’s multidisciplinary team will analyze sequence diversity in targeted gene regions (DNA barcodes) to create a system that allows anyone to identify any species. Its work will allow biodiversity scientists to quantify species diversity, probe species interactions, and track species distributions with unprecedented scale and resolution. This progress will allow radical advances in biodiversity science and the opportunity for uptake by national and international organizations working in biodiversity management and environmental sustainability.

Ărramăt: Biodiversity Conservation and the Health and Well-Being of Indigenous Peoples

Nominated principal investigator: Brenda Parlee, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta | Total funding: $24 million

Indigenous Peoples comprise less than 5% of the world’s population, yet 80% of Earth’s biodiversity is located in Indigenous territories. Threats such as climate change, habitat destruction and resource extraction are impacting biodiversity now more than ever. These losses are having significant impacts on human health.

Indigenous Peoples approach the stewardship of biodiversity and health holistically. Ărramăt is a Tamasheq word referring to the strong interrelationships between people, animals and nature, and is a concept that symbolizes this holistic approach. This novel research project will support Indigenous Peoples in applying their knowledge for the benefit of Canada and the world. It involves more than 100 Indigenous leaders, governments, organizations and university researchers from a diversity of cultures and ecosystems. Working in more than 24 countries and speaking more than 30 languages, the team will produce evidence and propose solutions for stewarding biodiversity in ways that can contribute to health and well-being. It will address issues including food security, human-wildlife management and decolonization of science, and will support Indigenous leaders seeking to drive transformative change on local to global scales.

Mend the Gap: A Transformative Biomaterials Platform for Spinal Cord Repair

Nominated principal investigator: John Madden, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia | Total funding: $24 million

Globally, more than 27 million people live with spinal cord injury (SCI) and there are 930,000 new cases each year. SCI is a debilitating condition involving paralysis and loss of control over many functions of the body, leading to health complications, psychological issues, lost life opportunities and, often, reduced life expectancy. People living with SCI are disproportionately represented among those in developing countries, visible minorities in developed countries, First Nations people in Canada, and young people in general. The costs for a lifetime of care are estimated at C$3 to 6 million per person with SCI. Despite decades of advancements, the challenge of SCI is that spinal neurons typically do not regrow, or do not grow enough to reconnect across a gap that is often greater than 20 mm. While the spinal column can be surgically stabilized and rehabilitation training does yield improvement for incomplete injuries, there is no treatment for the injured cord itself that would restore motor control and other functions. It has become clear that combined approaches of more than one treatment at a time are needed to address the multifactorial problem of nerve fibre regrowth in the spinal cord.

This multidisciplinary team of Canadian and international scientists and engineers will develop effective and minimally invasive treatments for SCI. A minimally invasive, machine vision-guided robotic procedure will inject a gel-like biomaterial with tiny aligned rods to be used to guide nerve fibre regrowth across the injury site, facilitating the delivery of drugs to encourage nerves to regrow. Through their research, the team will develop new methods, techniques and understanding, and will demonstrate SCI treatments in preclinical models to prepare for the launch of human trials. This transformative approach would be a world first and will target the formidable challenge of repairing spinal cord injuries by learning how to “mend the gap.”

Inclusive Design for Employment Access (IDEA): A Social Innovation Laboratory

Nominated principal investigator: Emile Tompa, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario | Total funding: $9,038,977

Talented people are often excluded from equal opportunities and choices in careers, jobs and work because they are perceived as “different.” That is frequently the case for the 20% of Canadians who are persons with disabilities. Challenges are heightened for persons with disabilities who also belong to other marginalized groups, and who face additional barriers based on their gender, sexual orientation and racial identity. Poor employment outcomes are a significant social problem. Many persons with disabilities remain out of the labour force or stuck in entry-level, precarious employment, and earn less than their able-bodied counterparts. Lower employment rates create higher dependency on disability benefit systems, which become difficult for persons with disabilities to exit and are costly for governments and other entities to administer. A study funded by Employment and Social Development Canada found that the cost of exclusion of persons with disabilities from Canadian society in 2017 was valued at C$338 billion, or 17.6% of gross domestic product (GDP), with employment output loss alone valued at 3.2% of GDP (C$62 billion).

This research team is looking to address employment gaps in Canada by re-imagining inclusive workplaces through demand-side capacity building, which includes improving access to supports for employers, increasing knowledge on best practices for disability management, providing more effective employment support services, supporting effective employer-union collaborations, and enhancing peer mentorship. The expected outcome is a stronger, more diverse workforce in Canada, with lasting economic, social and health benefits for persons with disabilities and society at large.

Repurposing Marine By-Products or Raw Materials for the Development and Production of Functional Foods and Bioactives to Improve Human Health and Coastal Community Sustainability

Nominated principal investigator: Raymond Thomas, Memorial University, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador | Total funding: $14,961,023

Fishing communities around the world are facing a changing and challenging landscape. The catch is getting lower and the amounts the industry is allowed to harvest are decreasing. The research indicates there are a number of factors creating these changes, including stricter government regulations on fish and shellfish quota, fishing density, and climate change. Currently, the unused waste from species such as finfish, crab, mussels, shrimp and seaweed are thrown into landfills or discarded at sea. The economic challenges the industry faces are now having an impact on the rural coastal communities that depend on the fishing industry to survive.

Over the course of this groundbreaking project, the team will repurpose marine raw materials and waste. The team will work alongside coastal and Indigenous communities to develop green processes to extract materials from that waste and convert it into useful products in items such as pharmaceuticals, functional food and materials. This will create new industry and revenue streams for small- and medium-sized enterprises in Newfoundland, becoming a model for other coastal communities worldwide. A key outcome of the project will be the training of highly qualified personnel, including Indigenous students, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate and undergraduate students, who will gain new skills in the integration of coastal sustainability entrepreneurialism and ocean-based research, and scale up these businesses in these rural coastal communities.

Protection of Metallic Surfaces from Bulk to Nano through Molecular-Level Innovation

Nominated principal investigator: Cathleen Crudden, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario | Total funding: $24 million

Metals are found in nearly every area of our lives. They are in our cars, in bridges, in airplanes, in electrical wires, and in our cellphones and laptops. Over time, the structural and functional elements of metallic surfaces rust and wear down, feeding into a billion-dollar waste industry. Current approaches to the protection of metallic surfaces, such as corrosion prevention, metal migration, and the development of new metals and metallic nanoparticles protected using sulfur-containing molecules, all present individual challenges. For example, metallic nanoparticles are at the forefront of advances in precision medicine, yet are based on 1980s technology known to be sensitive to degradation thermally, oxidatively and in vivo, resulting in one of the most significant limitations in the clinical translation of metal nanoparticle-based medicine.

This international team of researchers seeks to develop a new approach to the protection of metal surfaces, by forming carbon-to-metal coatings with unprecedented strength and resistance to oxidation. This unique technology will assist manufacturing, automotive, shipping and aerospace industries, while opening up markets in green energy, microelectronics manufacturing and nanomedicine approaches to precision cancer treatment. The development of an entirely new approach to protective coatings will position Canada at the leading edge of the barrier coatings industry, which has an economic impact of C$31 billion a year, and currently employs 211,000 Canadians.

The Next Frontier in Transplantation: Ex Vivo Strategies to Repair and Rebuild Organs

Nominated principal investigator: Shaf Keshavjee, University Health Network, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario | Total funding: $24 million

Roughly 4,500 Canadians and more than 113,000 people in the United States are currently waiting for an organ transplant. As the need for transplants exceeds availability, more than 20 patients die every day due to not receiving a life-saving organ transplant in time. Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN) is a leader in transplantation, with over 700 lives saved through organ transplantation in 2019—the highest number in North America. UHN’s most innovative breakthrough has been the team’s development of the Toronto ex vivo lung perfusion (EVLP) system. EVLP uses specialized machines to maintain and treat donor lungs outside of the body just before transplant. This allows the organ to remain at body temperature while clinicians carefully assess its physiological function and determine its suitability for the transplant recipient. At UHN, EVLP application has fully doubled the number of transplants performed (over 200 per year), resulting in widespread adoption in transplant centres worldwide. UHN also leads the development of ex vivo organ perfusion (EVOP) systems for the liver, kidney, pancreas and heart.

Over the course of this project, the multi-organ transplant team at UHN will optimize donor organs using the developed EVOP platforms—a world-leading approach that will truly revolutionize the organ transplant field. They will do so by pursuing three integrated project objectives:

  1. explore the development of sophisticated EVOP platforms that will result in days-long organ preservation;
  2. improve organ tolerance for the transplant recipient; and
  3. leverage EVOP to create custom organs specifically designed for the recipient, bringing precision medicine to the patient bedside.

Together, these outcomes will help to eliminate the transplant wait-list and ensure the availability of organs for all in need, providing durable organs that will outlive their recipients—a true transformation in the field of transplant medicine.

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