CIHR grants to the tune of $1.5 million for Professors Descoteaux and Patten

Following their latest grant competition, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research announced a total of $1.5 in funding for two INRS professors. Professor Albert Descoteaux will receive $918,000 over five years to study the parasite Leishmania, specifically the mechanisms it uses to evade our immune system. Professor Kessen Patten will receive $627,300 over five years as well to enhance the understanding of the mechanisms involved in spinal muscular atrophy, a fatal and untreatable illness that is still poorly understood.

Leishmania and host cell membrane fusion machinery

Albert Descoteaux, holder of the Canada Research Chair on Biology of Intracellular Parasitism, Tier 1, investigates the interaction between Leishmania and its macrophage host cell. The parasite causes leishmaniasis, a neglected tropical disease that exists in various forms in infected humans and for which there is no vaccine. Available treatment is based on chemotherapy, which is difficult to administer, expensive, and becoming ineffective due to the spread of drug resistance. Leishmaniasis presents numerous research challenges, one of them being to understand how Leishmania alters host cells' immune response by targeting membrane dynamics.

Intercellular communication and the transport of molecules between cellular compartments mainly depend on membrane fusion. Professor Descoteaux's team discovered that Leishmania selectively alters this vital mechanism in macrophages, the immune cells where it replicates. Professor Descoteaux and his team are particularly interested in a group of proteins involved in membrane fusion called SNARE proteins, and will continue studying their role in Leishmania's mode of action.

Spinal muscular atrophy and zebrafish

Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), the leading genetic cause of infant mortality, is a neuromuscular disease that involves the death of lower motor neurons, which leads to muscle weakness and eventually atrophy. As no effective treatment is available, research on this illness is essential. Professor Kessen Patten focuses particularly on the early stages of SMA onset.

Studying how the connections between neurons and muscles (at sites called synapses) become dysfunctional is critical to advancing our understanding of this disease. Defects in these synapses play an important role in the development of the illness, but it is difficult to study them in mammals because the synapses are hard to reach in living subjects.

Professor Patten uses zebrafish to look at how SMA-associated genes cause synaptic pathologies. His approach will help us understand the cellular mechanisms in the first stages of synaptic dysfunction in children with SMA and ultimately help to uncover therapeutic targets.

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