This past year I received institutional, provincial and federal funding from the University of Manitoba, Research Manitoba and NSERC, respectively. These funds have been pivotal in advancing my research program investigating brainstem-spinal neural connectivity. As well, my lab has recently recruited my first graduate student that will be joining in September 2020. Lastly, I am pleased to have established collaborations within the department with Dr. Cowley, investigating the spinal neurons that integrate locomotor and autonomic function and Dr. Karimi, examining the synaptic activity of human derived neural stem cells.
Highlights from the past year include receiving a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Health and Function after Spinal Cord Injury, being invited to speak on ‘Health and function after spinal cord injury’ at the International Spinal Research Trust Annual Meeting in London, UK, and collaborating with international colleagues to develop a clinical practice guideline. The guideline is the Paralyzed Veterans of America’s first bone health clinical practice guideline Bone Health and Osteoporosis Management in Adults with Spinal Cord Injury and address bone health issues after SCI for a range of bone-related SCI-specific concerns, from drug and/or activity-based means to prevent or treat bone mineral density loss to how to manage the care of persons who sustain fractures after SCI. Finally, I was a member of the committee that developed The Accessibility Advisory Council Recommendations for the Initial Accessibility Standard for the Design of Public Spaces. This draft standard will be the first regulation for the Province of Manitoba for the built outdoor environment and was developed to comply with the Accessibility for Manitobans Act.
Research on Neurodegeneration has become the main focus of my lab and my contributions in the field has been acknowledged by the Canadian Consortium of Neurodegenerative Diseases, by accepting me as a new member. I have been invited to write two review articles; one in the field of oxidative stress and neuronal cell death in the journal of Free Radical Medicine Biology special issue on oxidative stress (Published), and second one to be published by the journal of BBA-General Basis of Diseases. I have established new collaborative research with scientists in Germany (revised paper in review) and South Korea (manuscript to be submitted). My senior PhD student graduated this year with a stellar record of 11 publications as first or co-author. Two new MSc students have started in my lab and another arriving in January. Despite significant delays in research due to pandemic conditions my lab has been able to keep its productivity.
Throughout 2020 I have continued to coordinate and lead educational contributions, not only of members of the SCRC, but also of the Neurosciences and Spinal Cord Injury Division, and the Department of Physiology and Pathophysiology as a whole. SCRC members are major contributors to several programs within the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, including Undergraduate Medical Education (UGME), the Master’s of Physician’s Assistant Program (MPAS), the Pharmacy Doctoral Program (PharmD), the Bachelor of Health Sciences Program, our departmental Graduate Program, as well as several other Graduate programs (via delivery of Interdisciplinary Medicine ‘IMED’ graduate courses). The willingness of SCRC members to share their expertise by making substantial teaching and mentoring contributions enriches the training environment and research appreciation of trainees in many educational programs. Through these contributions SCRC members not only produce well-trained and highly qualified researchers of the future, but also provide exceptional educational experiences that provide a foundation for an ‘evidence-based’ approach to health and wellness for several undergraduate and/or professional programs. 2020 has been a very challenging year on many fronts, including for the delivery and administration of academic programs. In addition to my normal roles as Associate Head (Education) in the department, Course Director within UGME, and serving on various curriculum oversight committees, I have spent a significant portion of 2020 dealing with COVID related responses. The goal has been to keep essential research operating safely, as well as ‘Pandemic Planning’ to mitigate the impact of COVID on RFHS educational programming.
On July 1, 2020 I passed the torch over to our new Director, Dr. Kristine Cowley. It has been an honour to be a member of the SCRC since 2002, and to work with the SCRC members during these past 5 years of my directorship, during which times we have seen significant transformative changes. I look forward to continuing our research work in my lab, and to working with Dr. Cowley as the SCRC heads into an exciting future.
A busy year in spite of the lock-down in early 2020. My collaborator, Dr. Urszula Slawinska of the Nencki Institute for Experimental Biology in Warsaw, Poland just arrived a week before the March shut-down and the on-site work with our time-point matched animals had to be re-arranged due to COVD-19 issues. These series of experiment we have completed to some extent form the final chapter of my current Ph.D. student, Mona Nazzal’s thesis. This project addressing the plasticity of afferent pathways that facilitate locomotion is nearing completion. Achieving an understanding of the afferent fibers responsible for this facilitation of locomotion will be valuable information for designing rehabilitation strategies for injured patients. We also made progress with analyzing results from the latest series of experiments involving the use of DREADD (Designer Receptors Exclusively Activated by a Designer Drug) technology in an attempt to excite grafted cells transfected with an excitatory DREADD using a viral vector. In each case, the presence of the DREADD enhanced locomotor activity in the presence of the designer drugs used to activate the cells. Determining the identity of the effective cells (those that are labelled with the reporter associated with the DREADD) is under way. The results of the work since the start of 2020 will be presented in the Global Connectome meeting planned by SFN on a virtual platform.
This year marked the 10 year anniversary of my research program at the University of Manitoba. Although 2020 happened to be a difficult time globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my research team and I still had a productive year at all fronts in 2020. We remained our active presence in the field and published several high impact articles in top-tier journals such as Brain, Progress in Neurobiology, GLIA and Experimental neurology. Among these articles, our very first publication of our multiple sclerosis (MS) research appeared in the prestigious and longstanding journal, Brain, which was highlighted by the MS Society of Canada and U of M media, and also was selected by the editor for scientific commentary. I was also able to renew our MS Society grant and secure three years of funding to continue our MS research. My PhD student, Mojtaba Hosseini, also received the 2020 Hillary Kaufman Lerner Memorial Funds in multiple sclerosis.
Personally, 2020 was a landmark year, as I was promoted to a full professor. I was also recognized as Canada's Most Powerful Women: Top 100. It was an honor to be nominated by U of M and win in the category of Science and Technology that recognizes women in STEM roles who are challenging the status quo for knowledge and female empowerment. In 2020, I continued my national and international leadership activities, by serving in the Scientific Advisory Board of the International Neurotrauma Society (INTS), the Executive Committee of the international Women in Multiple Sclerosis (iWiMS) (and Chair of Governance Subcommittee), and the Board of Directors of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience (CAN). I also continued my outreach and advocacy activities. As an example, I represented the CAN on CAN’s Hill advocacy for basic science funding in Canada by meeting with Manitoba Member of Parliament, and member of Health Standing Committee. I continued my participation in the CIHR System and Clinical Neuroscience NSA review panels. I also provided mentorship to three trainees (PhD students and postdoctoral fellows) outside the U of M through the endMS National Training Program (SPRINT). I continued my role as an Associate Editor for the Frontiers in Neurology and BMC Neuroscience journals. I was also appointed as the inaugural Chair of the Award and Recognition Committee at the Department of Physiology and Pathophysiology.
Members of Dr. Nagy’s group continue to delve into the nature of electrical synapses formed by gap junctions composed of connexin36 in the central nervous system (CNS). He and collaborators Roger Traub in New York and others in Germany have written a review in which they discuss possible ways in which electrical synapses may participate in the formation of neuronal cell assemblies in various areas of the CNS. With respect to delineation of the macromolecular structural organization and regulation of gap junctions that create electrical synapses, he and members of his lab have identified major cellular signaling mechanisms that target electrical synapses and orchestrate their assembly, structural integrity and subcellular deployment at neuronal elements. Their preliminary results on this topic will form the basis for a CIHR grant application to be submitted in the Fall 2020 competition. Research activities in his lab focused on electrical synapses in the spinal cord also continue. This includes work on electrical synapses between preganglionic sympathetic neurons on which a manuscript for publication in in preparation. In addition, they have recently found of electrical synapses between spinal cord interneurons that govern the excitability of motoneurons along the entire length of the cord. This discovery is relevant to the synchronization of motoneuron activity with consequent impact on speed and force of muscle contraction. This work will the basis for another CIHR grant application prepared in collaboration with other SCRC members and to be submitted in the Spring 2021 competition. In other collaborations, Dr. Nagy has worked with researchers in Portland, Oregon, with a focus on elucidating the role of gap junctions in regulating the production of aqueous humor by trabecular meshwork cells in the anterior chamber of the eye.
Lots of exciting new results have built-up over the last 5 years that came to a point in 2020 that we have solid, exciting original research papers from the work done in the rodent labs. Getting ethics approval for starting experiments in the human electrophysiology laboratory for health, balance and motor control was the most exciting new development for us! The use of non-invasive spinal cord and brain stimulation represents such a powerful tool for understanding human neural circuits as well as discovering new ways to promote recovery of sensory and motor function after spinal cord injury or stroke. Although, everything in terms of the planned experimental work had to be re-arranged and re-planned this year with the pandemic influencing all our lives. I am very thankful to all my trainees to make the best use of these times and to be productive to their best ability even during the shut-down period.