Nfld. & Labrador

MUN researchers asking million dollar questions about PTSD, depression and MS

MUN scientists looking at why some people are more vulnerable to depression and whether the brain could repair itself net big money in competitive federal program.

Nearly $2 million awarded to three MUN researchers from federal grant program

Francis Bambico, left, and Craig Moore, right, were each awarded over $600,000 for their research. (Sarah Smellie/CBC)

Atlantic Canada has one of the highest rates of multiple sclerosis in the world and an infusion of federal money could put patients from Newfoundland and Labrador at the centre of a new understanding about the disease.

Craig Moore, a researcher at Memorial University, has been collecting information about MS patients in the province. He wants to use that information to study how MS progresses at a cellular level, and how those cellular changes become physical changes.

As of Wednesday afternoon, he's got over $600,000 in new grant money to do it.

"[I hope] to make a regional, national and international contribution to understanding the disease mechanisms of multiple sclerosis," he said.

Craig Moore, second from left; Francis Bambico, second from right; and Dake Qi, right, were all awarded over $600,000 in research money on Wednesday. They are joined by Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, centre. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor was at Memorial University's St. John's campus Wednesday to announce that Moore was one of three MUN scientists to receive a highly competitive national grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for promising early-career scientists.

Their funding awards were part of an announcement of $372 million worth of CIHR grants to promising young scientists at universities across the country.

Could the brain repair itself?

Multiple sclerosis causes the immune system to start attacking the brain and spinal cord. Moore is interested in finding a way to convince the brain to respond differently — positively — to those attacks.

"What we really need to do in MS is learn how the brain will repair itself," he said.

Using what he describes as "a very willing population" of a couple hundred patients, Moore is building a bank of information about people suffering from MS in the province.

No two people diagnosed with MS will have the same symptoms, said Craig Moore. (Sarah Smellie/CBC)

"Every single year when they come in for a clinical visit, they provide us with a sample of blood," said Moore. That allows him and his team to get a long view of how their immune system is responding to the disease on a cellular level, and how it's manifesting on a physical level.

The CIHR grant gives him the resources to "actually dig into the samples and put them to good use," he said.

With funding to CIHR at an historic low, he said, these grants are especially competitive. Getting one puts him in the country's top tier of researchers.

"[It] provides me with … credibility as a scientist, as a competitive international scientist that can collaborate with world experts," he said.

Suicidal patients need faster-acting drugs

Francis Bambico hopes his CIHR grant will help him save lives.

Drugs typically used to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder only work for a select few — "one-third of patients do not respond at all," he said.

And when they do work, it can take a month for them to start working and give the patient some relief.

"Many of these patients are suicidal," he said. "So before they get the therapeutic effects, they will have succumbed to suicide."

"One third of patients do not respond at all" to the drugs commonly used for depression and PTSD said Francis Bambico. (Sarah Smellie/CBC)

Bambico is looking at the neurological reasons behind why some people are more vulnerable to depression and PTSD, and he's hoping his work will lead to better drugs.

He can't do tests on humans so he uses rodents, and he's managed to make those rodents exhibit signs of depression and PTSD.

When they're depressed, the rodents become less and less enthused about their sugar water, just like people become less interested in things they normally enjoy, said Bambico.

"Eventually, we [hope to] identify some proteins or some molecules inside these neurons that we can actually target using new drugs," he said.

Bambico was awarded over $600,000 in CIHR funding, as was Dake Qi, a researcher in cardiovascular sciences.

With files from Anthony Germain