Improving cancer treatment, reducing antifungal resistance and increasing livestock health and productivity are the goals of two new and one renewed Canada Research Chairs (CRC) for University of Guelph researchers.

The funding is part of a $191-million federal investment announced today for 230 new and renewed chairs across Canada. 

Tier 1 chairs recognize world leaders in their field and receive $200,000 a year for seven years. Tier 2 chairs for exceptional emerging leaders in their field are worth $120,000 for new chairs and $100,000 for renewed chairs annually for five years. Most of the funding supports the chair and chairholder’s research.

The CRC program assists Canadian post-secondary institutions to attract and retain outstanding researchers in various fields, fostering institutional excellence in research and training.

Dr. Jim Petrik, CRC in Translational Health and Clinical Research

Dr. Jim Petrik poses for a photo in his lab
Dr. Jim Petrik

Petrik will explore innovative ways to identify, test, and streamline the development of novel anti-cancer treatments for advanced-stage cancers.

“Two of five Canadians are expected to get cancer in their lifetime, yet it takes several years to move a potential therapy into human clinical trials,” said Petrik. “Even then, few of those therapies prove to have any clinical impact.”

The CRC will allow Petrik and his research team to continue studying cancerous tumors to understand how their inner environments impede the impact of conventional anti-cancer treatments like chemotherapy.

They will also develop and refine techniques for changing the tumor environment in ways that will enhance the effectiveness of other anti-cancer therapies. 

The project uses a translational medicine approach, applying the team’s basic science discoveries to developing improved treatment. Where traditional translational medicine aims to benefit human health, Petrik’s team takes the distinctive step to conduct intermediate studies with companion animals.

Petrik explained that many dog cancers and human cancers share genetic similarities. Bringing companion animals that spontaneously develop disease into the therapy development program could speed up the progress of moving these therapies to human clinic trials, accelerating drug development and ultimately producing more effective treatments.

“I’m excited by how the CRC will advance our research program,” said Petrik. “Making a difference for human and pet cancer patients and their families — that’s the definition of fulfilling to me,” said Petrik.  

Dr. Jennifer Geddes-McAlister, CRC in Proteomics of Fungal Disease in One Health

Dr. Jennifer Geddes-McAlister

Geddes-McAlister and her research team explore how plants and humans interact with fungal pathogens, with the aim of addressing antifungal resistance.

“Fungal diseases have widespread effects on the environment, food security and health,” said Geddes-McAlister. “They can devastate food crops but combatting them with fungicides contributes to antifungal resistance in fungi found in the environment. When these fungi infect humans or animals, treatment can be challenging, especially since we have such a limited range of antifungal drugs.”

Geddes-McAlister and her research team tackle antifungal resistance from two directions. They study ways to reduce the use of fungicides, and they also explore how to reverse resistance.

The CRC will enable Geddes-McAlister to bring these two lines of research together using a One Health approach to investigate the interconnection between agricultural use of fungicides and antifungal resistance in healthcare settings.

Geddes-McAlister and her team will use mass spectrometry-based proteomics — the study of proteins in a biological system — to identify the mechanisms by which a host defends itself from fungal infection and how a fungal pathogen infects a host. 

This basic research will help to develop novel approaches to preventing resistance — such as breeding grain varieties that are more resistant to fungal diseases and mycotoxins — as well as to overcome it through identifying and developing new antifungal treatments. 

The CRC will also support Geddes-McAlister’s efforts to promote women in the sciences, a concern that prompted her to establish the global network Moms in Proteomics.

Dr. Christine Baes, CRC in Livestock Genomics

Dr. Christine Baes

The renewed CRC will enable Baes to build on her accomplishments of the last five years during which her cutting-edge research program has led to long-term genetic improvement of livestock in Canada and around the globe.

Baes and her team will focus on finding accurate and practical ways to collect information about specific traits in farm animals, while also uncovering how different parts of an animal’s DNA contribute to traits like health, fertility rate or methane production.

Understanding this genetic architecture can help scientists, livestock producers and farmers better predict and improve these traits through selective breeding or genetic interventions.

“I am so grateful for this recognition, which also represents the hard work of my team and collaborators whom I am very fortunate to work with,” said Baes.