Added funding promotes epigenetic research

A brain injury as a youth can make a person more likely to suffer from strokes, Parkinson's or other diseases of the brain later in life.

The big question might be "why?" but the answer may be found by looking at something very, very small: understanding how an individual gene can go wrong or not work properly over a person's lifetime.

The emerging research discipline that can help find that answer is called epigenetics, and thanks to a significant amount of recent funding, researchers at the U of L are poised to assume a significant leadership role in epigenetics research.

Epigenetics (which means 'beyond genetics' in Latin) is the study of how individual genes and components of individual genes can change in response to environmental conditions or other factors.

Nearly 20 U of L researchers from three academic departments (Neuroscience, Chemistry and Biochemistry and Biological Sciences) and up to 50 graduate and doctoral-level researchers will be involved in the initial phases of the research. Significant expansions are planned for future years of the research program.

In addition to $3 million in start-up funding announced last summer from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a recent funding announcement from the Government of Alberta's Alberta Science and Research Investments Program (ASRIP) has awarded a research team from the U of L more than $2.8 million.

"This funding, along with our matching funds from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and support from the U of L and other granting agencies, will boost the U of L to a world-class level in terms of our ability to identify and work on new epigenetics projects," says Dr. Robert Sutherland, a neuroscience researcher and one of the driving forces behind the new epigenetics research program.

Along with colleagues Drs. Olga and Igor Kovalchuk in Biological Sciences and collaborators in Chemistry and Biochemistry and other departments on campus – and a huge team of graduate and undergraduate students – Sutherland said the researchers are looking forward to a lot of work now and in the future to tease solutions to a number of health issues out of the complex genetics system that makes up the human body.

"This funding will allow us to gather even more people and resources together in one place to learn about how individual genes can affect people's health and well-being," Sutherland says.

"Education and science lie at the heart of our future prosperity," adds Doug Horner, Minister of Advanced Education and Technology. "These continued research awards help attract and retain the best and brightest researchers and, in turn, help improve the competitiveness of our industries. Our researchers are paving the way to bring about new products, services and treatments that can lead to a better quality of life for Albertans."

Alberta's universities shared almost $44 million in awards for research into developing new treatments for diabetics, burn victims and lung disease patients, improving GPS accuracy and adding value to Alberta's traditional crops as well as the U of L's epigenetics research program.

For 2009, Alberta Science and Research Investments Program awards provide up to 40 per cent of total project costs to 18 initiatives in priority areas of bioindustries, energy and the environment, and health. The projects will also receive $66 million from other sources, including the federal government and private sector partners. Since 2000, the program has provided more than $169 million for over 100 projects.