UM Today: Research pushing the boundaries

Four early career researchers at the University of Manitoba are among the inaugural recipients of $986,250 in funding from the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) announced on May 13, 2019, by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The NFRF program launched in 2018 provides funding that supports high-risk, high-reward and interdisciplinary research to help Canadian researchers make the next great discoveries in their fields.

“Traditional parameters are limiting as Canada strives for new discoveries and innovation,” said Ted Hewitt, chair, Canada Research Coordinating Committee and President of SSHRC. “As society evolves, so must our means of doing research. The New Frontiers in Research Fund is supporting leading-edge research and promoting ideas that would have traditionally been unsupported. Through this program, we are truly paving the way for our emerging researchers to expand their horizons, take risks and deliver outcomes that will benefit Canadians.”

The U of M research projects will investigate ways to reverse frailty, allay anxiety using virtual reality, find new antibiotics, and assess the safety of northern infrastructure in the context of climate change. All projects will receive up to $250,000 in funding over two years.

“I congratulate these four early career researchers and their collaborators on their success in this inaugural national competition,” said Digvir Jayas, vice-president (research and international) and Distinguished Professor at the U of M. “They are each pushing the boundaries of existing knowledge and methods as they seek innovative ways to solve problems that affect every member of society.”


Ayesha Saleem


Meaghan Jones


Principle investigators (PI):Meaghan Jones, biochemistry and medical genetics, Max Rady College of Medicine; and Ayesha Saleem, Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management
Project: “Reversing frailty through transmission of epigenetic age by extracellular vesicles.”

The aging population in Canada and around the world requires the development of therapeutic strategies aimed at improving health span (the length of time a person is healthy) to keep pace with the increase in lifespan. In theory, effective anti-aging therapeutics must be capable of altering innate cellular hallmarks of aging such as changes in metabolism and epigenetics. Previous research has shown that transfusing old animals with blood from young animals reverses some aspects of aging, leading to the hypothesis of “youthful” factors in young blood. We propose that these factors are packaged in a type of secretory vehicle called extracellular vesicles (EVs), and that treating old cells with EVs isolated from younger people would reverse physiological markers of aging such as the epigenetic clock and impaired metabolism.


Renee El-Gabalawy


PI: Renee El-Gabalawy, anesthesia, Max Rady College of Medicine
Co-PIs: Rakesh Arora, Pamela Hebbard, surgery, Max Rady College of Medicine; and fellow Max Rady College of Medicine faculty, Natalie Mota, clinical health psychology; William Mutch, anesthesia; Thomas Mutter, anesthesia; and Kristen Reynolds, psychology, Faculty of Arts.
Project: “A targeted preoperative virtual reality intervention with artificial intelligence integration for anxiety in patients undergoing breast cancer surgery.”

Preoperative state anxiety (PSA) occurs in approximately half of breast cancer surgery patients and is associated with several negative mental and physical health postoperative outcomes, which incur costs to both individual patients and the health care system as a whole. Despite this, few targeted and feasible PSA interventions have been developed. The most promising PSA interventions to date involve poorly feasible initiatives where patients are given the opportunity to tour operating rooms (OR) and wards prior to surgery and gain information about the perioperative process in a classroom setting. Immersive virtual reality (VR) is a technologically advanced interface that allows antecedent exposure to simulated stressful environments such as the OR and allows for the integration of interactive artificially intelligent (AI) avatars who can provide information to patients on the perioperative process. We aim to develop and evaluate a novel virtual reality (VR) preoperative intervention with AI avatars to reduce PSA, and mitigate poor postoperative health effects in breast cancer surgery patients

Reducing PSA and preventing poor postoperative outcomes using VR may have significant patient health and financial implications such as reducing levels of acute and chronic postoperative pain and length of stay. This novel research will form the basis of investigating the utility of VR with AI in other surgical cohorts, which may lead to broad implementation of this low cost intervention.


Sabine Kuss


PI: Sabine Kuss, chemistry, Faculty of Science
Title: “Investigation of antibiotic resistance by electrochemistry.”

Antibiotic resistance has developed into a global problem and has led to a dire need for innovative strategies that are able to quantify efflux and influx of agents into bacterial cells for the assessment of potential new and reliable antimicrobial candidates. The overall goal of the work described in this proposal is the development of an electro-bio-analytical tool that can detect and quantify antibiotic drug resistance and assess newly developed investigational antibacterial therapeutics.

The increase of resistance in Gram-negative bacteria in particular is a major cause for concern, as many Gram-negatives cause serious infections, such as pneumonia, and few antibiotics effective against Gram-negatives have been developed. Studying the influx into and efflux from single bacteria and across populations of antibacterial drugs will provide a numerical quantitative measure for drug resistance leading towards the development of a resistance biosensor. Furthermore, by monitoring the bacterial response time to antibiotics this research will help to better understand resistance adaptation and progression, leading towards the development of new agents and strategies to ultimately overcome drug resistance.


Ahmed Ashraf


Pooneh Maghoul


PI: Pooneh Maghoul, civil engineering, Faculty of Engineering
Co-PIs: Faculty of Engineering – Ahmed Ashraf, electrical and computer engineering; Hartmut Hollaender, civil engineer; Ahmed Shalaby, civil engineering
Title: “Threat assessment for northern civil infrastructure affected by climate change using an AI-based geomechanical model”

Civil infrastructure (roads, dams, etcetera) in Northern Canada was originally designed based on our understanding of frozen soil properties as of the last century, to rely on the properties of ice-rich frozen soil for stability. Climate change has forced us to revisit this understanding. Specifically, in recent years, this infrastructure has been suffering from irregular settlements due to the adverse effects of climate warming, degradation of permafrost, and reduced strength of foundation soils due to thawing. With earth’s temperature predicted to increase within the lifetime of this infrastructure, structural integrity risks will be further compounded. There is, therefore, an urgent need to develop innovative solutions and strategies that will enable engineers and decision-makers to use these investments for implementing effective, long-term solutions for mitigating adverse impacts of hazards from the effects of climate warming on Canadian infrastructure.

The main objective of this research project is to develop innovative solutions to predict and enhance the structural integrity of existing critical infrastructure as well as future structures built on permafrost areas under different climate warming scenarios. In addition, it is aimed to create a new publicly available portal that will continuously monitor and predict the displacement of critical northern infrastructure subjected to climate warming hazards. This can be achieved by a multidisciplinary research that combines Geo-mechanical and Hydrogeological Modeling, Artificial Intelligence, Deep Learning, and Computer Vision for Remote Sensing, and Asset Management and Life-Cycle Cost Assessment of Climate Change Adaptation Measures as proposed in this study.


Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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