Dr. Kristen Conn, assistant professor in the WCVM's Department of Veterinary Microbiology. Photo: Christina Weese.
Dr. Kristen Conn, assistant professor in the WCVM's Department of Veterinary Microbiology. Photo: Christina Weese.

Province's health fund supports WCVM herpes virus research

Dr. Kristen Conn, a virologist at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), has received $120,000 from the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF) in support of her work targeting a herpes virus protein for new antiviral drugs.

The provincial health research organization awarded a total of more than $715,000 to Conn and five other University of Saskatchewan (USask) researchers as part of its Establishment Grant competition for 2020-21. This funding program assists researchers who are new or newly resident in Saskatchewan in establishing an independent program of health research in the province.

“SHRF’s investment in our growing community of outstanding researchers is advancing health care in Saskatchewan and developing innovative solutions for global health challenges, including mental health and addictions,” said USask Vice-President Research Karen Chad.

The funding will assist the researchers in establishing health research programs in the province, and in achieving the productivity needed to compete successfully for major funding from national and other external agencies.

Conn, who joined the WCVM’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology in 2018, will examine how an essential protein of the herpes simplex virus (HSV) can disrupt a host cell’s natural ability to combat infection.

The assistant professor's research could lead to new targets for developing antiviral drugs which prevent all herpes simplex virus infections, including devastating herpes infections in newborn babies. In Canada, HSV kills 15 per cent of infected newborn babies, and leads to potential long-term developmental delays and complications for those who survive.

Here’s an overview of the five other USask projects that have received SHRF support:  

Using ‘big data’ to better understand mental health and addictions ($120,000)

USask epidemiologist Maureen Anderson will use routinely collected data to detect patterns of health care use among mental health and addiction clients. Anderson will also assess whether having consistent care from a family doctor reduces mental health care costs, and will attempt to create a model to identify those at increased risk of poor outcomes, such as self-harm and hospitalization.

The project—Saskatchewan’s first comprehensive epidemiological research program into mental health and addictions service delivery, health care costs, and population health outcomes—aims to provide data-driven evidence for policy makers on where and for whom to target limited resources. Despite high prevalence of illness in the national population, mental health care and research each respectively receive less than 10 per cent of total health care funding across Canada, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Addressing mental health and addiction-related emergency department visits ($119,872)

In the face of public concern over long waits and other issues with emergency care for patients with mental health and addiction problems, USask nursing researcher Hua Li will examine ways to improve emergency department visits for mental health and addiction patients, caregivers, and health-care providers. Unmet needs will be identified through interviews, surveys, and focus groups. The research has potential to help patients and improve community mental health and addiction services in Saskatchewan and across Canada. 

Reducing drop-out rates from opioid use disorder treatment ($118,165)

One-third of patients with opioid use disorders currently drop out of opioid replacement treatment programs within the first three months, increasing the risk of unsafe drug use and overdose. USask psychiatry researcher Dr. Rohit Lodhi will study the role such factors as the patient’s trauma history, biological sex, cultural background, and other substance use, as well patient perspectives on recovery, play in reasons for dropping out. The project will also assess whether rapid access to addiction medicine clinics are effective in retaining patients.

Detecting and diagnosing gum disease ($120,000)

USask dentistry researcher Dr. Walter Siqueira will develop a new method to detect and diagnose gum disease—one of the most common chronic diseases in Canada. By studying the degradation of a specific protein only found in human saliva, Siqueira will determine whether the disease is active. Current methods only indicate whether a person has had the disease in the past. Without treatment, gum disease can destroy the bones which support teeth, and cause teeth to loosen and fall out. The research has potential to change how dentists treat the disease and improve oral health for patients.

Promoting multiple sclerosis neurorecovery through physical rehabilitation ($119,484)

Saskatchewan has the highest rate of MS (multiple sclerosis) worldwide, yet has no MS-specific physical rehabilitation services. For people living with MS, physical rehabilitation can improve a person’s function and quality of life, and potentially reduce the number of relapses and brain lesions. USask neurological rehabilitation expert Sarah Donkers aims to identify effective physical therapy methods to promote neurorecovery, and work with collaborators to develop and evaluate a comprehensive model of care to support access to these services.

More information is available on SHRF’s funding database website.

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