Literacy and health research

Low levels of literacy have been associated with poor health, poor understanding of treatment, greater use of health services, low adherence to treatment regimens, and poverty and unemployment. Considering that more than 40 per cent of Canadians fell into the two lowest categories of literacy in the 1994 International Literacy Survey, this is cause for concern. Recruited to BC from the University of Toronto, Dr. Irving Rootman is developing and implementing a research program on literacy and health in British Columbia. While the Canadian public health community has developed initiatives aimed at improving understanding of health information, there has been little research to measure the outcomes of these efforts. Dr. Rootman’s studies will assess the effectiveness of various approaches to improving health literacy in Canada and BC. His program will also provide training opportunities for graduate students, establish links between researchers across the country, and develop collaboration between researchers, health providers, policy makers and community members concerned about literacy and health.

A finite element model of the spinal cord

The way spinal cord tissue responds to different forces is not well understood. Carolyn Greaves is designing a specialized computer model of the spinal cord and its surrounding structures to measure the impact of different types of injury. This type of model of the spinal cord, called a finite element model, has never been developed before. The model will provide detailed measurements of spinal cord response to internal stresses, strains, and pressure changes in spinal fluid, as well as the impact on blood vessels, grey matter (nerve cell bodies) and white matter (nerve fibres). This information will broaden understanding of spinal cord injuries and be used to evaluate potential treatments. As well, neurological changes-such as swelling-occur following a spinal cord injury and can lead to secondary injuries. Carolyn’s model may lead the development of other models that could provide better understanding of these secondary injuries and how to treat them.

The role of the tumor suppressor ING in cell growth and death in a frog model system

Mary Wagner is interested in the fundamental mechanisms that govern a cell’s decision to divide, mature or die. Armed with this information, she says, we can gain greater insight into many different diseases where these basic functions are altered. For example, cancer is characterized by uncontrolled cell division, and inappropriate cell death is the hallmark of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and muscular dystrophy. Mary is studying the role of ING (INhibitor of Growth), a protein that helps regulate these basic cell functions. While ING is also found in the cells of humans, mice, rats and yeast, Mary is studying the protein’s role in the metamorphosis of tadpoles into frogs—a drastic and rapid transformation involving tail death, leg growth and brain remodeling. She is also investigating how environmental pollutants can act as hormones to disrupt normal cell development and function.

Structural analysis of the bacterial Sec-dependent protein secretion system

Cells have compartments separated by membranes. Many proteins are made in one compartment but actually function in another. The ability of proteins to travel across membranes within cells is essential to cell life. Malfunctions in this process can lead to a variety of inherited and autoimmune diseases in humans. Dr. Mark Paetzel’s research focuses on the mechanisms by which proteins travel across cell membranes, a process called protein targeting and translocation. Using the technique of X-ray crystallography, Dr. Paetzel is uncovering the three-dimensional structures of the protein complexes that make up the molecular machines involved in bacterial protein targeting and translocation. A better understanding of the functions and mechanisms of these protein complexes may yield insights about how the process works in human cells. In addition, learning how the process differs between bacteria and human cells could lead to a novel class of antibiotics that can shut down protein targeting and translocation activities in bacteria, but leaves human cells unaffected.

Improved assessment of exposure to regional and traffic-related pollutants and relationship to cardiac arrhythmia

Numerous studies over the last decade have associated air pollution with deaths. While many of those studies showed air pollution leads to respiratory disease, some research indicates air pollution-related deaths may involve cardiovascular conditions. The research suggests that people with chronic cardiovascular diseases are particularly susceptible to air pollution’s adverse health effects. Kira Rich is investigating the impact of air pollution on patients with cardiac arrhythmia (abnormal heart rate) who have implanted cardiac defibrillators. The defibrillators record the timing and duration of heart rhythm disturbances, and the data is regularly downloaded. Kira is comparing the information to air pollution data for Greater Vancouver to determine whether increases in air pollution correlate with increased risk of cardiac rhythm disturbances. She is also analyzing exposure to air pollutant concentrations at different sites to measure the effect on cardiac health.

Sociality of pain behaviour: Potentiation by an audience

Effective pain management depends upon successful pain assessment, which is measured through careful attention to a patient’s verbal and nonverbal communications. This task is complex, because the way a patient expresses pain during assessment is influenced by the presence of health care practitioners, family members and other patients. In spite of tremendous recent advances in understanding the physiology and pharmacology of pain, the complex social relationships affecting pain communications are only now beginning to be studied. Melanie Badali’s earlier research focused upon the role of memory as it affects children’s and parents’ assessments of the child’s pain. Now, she is examining how people communicate pain if they believe the person observing can assist in relieving the pain. Melanie anticipates her investigations will help improve the accuracy of pain assessment and management, thereby ultimately reducing suffering from acute and chronic pain.

Statistical techniques for genomic research

Genomics is the study of how the information contained in a genome gives rise to organisms and their functioning. This relatively new field of research analyzes vast amounts of data to uncover biological trends that help scientists understand how genes function in living systems. Dr. Jenny Bryan is working to develop new quantitative methods and statistical frameworks required for analysis of large functional genomics data sets. Her work addresses how researchers can find patterns and themes in complex, multidimensional genomic data. With colleagues, Dr. Bryan has pioneered methods of statistical gene expression analysis and has created a software program to implement these methods. Her software is currently being used by the world’s second largest biotechnology company. After she completed her PhD in 2001, Dr. Bryan elected to join Vancouver’s burgeoning computational biology and genome sciences community. Along with her dual appointment in the UBC Biotechnology Laboratory and Department of Statistics, she is also a faculty member in the MSFHR/CIHR Strategic Training Program in Bioinformatics.

Novel enzyme inhibitors for the prevention of metastatic Cancer

Carbohydrate molecules exist on the surface of all cells in the body, and control the movement of various compounds-viruses, bacteria, hormones, toxins and drugs-in and out of cells. Metastasis-the spread of malignant cancer cells-is linked to changes in the carbohydrate molecules on the surface of cancer cells. A particular enzyme helps produce mutations in these carbohydrate molecules. In earlier research, Nag Kumar showed that some compounds from a plant (used to treat type-2 diabetes in the Ayurvedic medicine system) inhibit this enzyme. Now he is using this lead compound to develop potent inhibitors of this enzyme. His goal is to interfere with the synthesis of the large carbohydrate molecules on the cell surface, and use the new enzyme inhibitors to develop anti-cancer drugs that can prevent cancer.

Cancer Genomics: Targeting genes activated during early stage lung cancer

While early detection is key to the successful treatment of many types of cancer, tumours still often go undetected and untreated until they are well advanced. Using information generated by the cancer genomics project at the BC Cancer Agency’s Genome Sciences Centre, Dr. Greg Vatcher’s research focuses on gene expression analysis-identifying genes that are activated in the earliest stages of cancer. He is hoping gene expression analysis can help detect tumours earlier. He is also conducting work to determine if tests can predict whether a person will develop cancer, based on pre-cancer genetic changes. Greg is bringing together information from multiple genomics projects, including data from the recently-completed Human Genome Project. For example, he’s taking genetic data being gathered on the normal aging process and relating it to his cancer study to determine if there are any common genetic components.

The effects of two training regimens on body balance, reaction time, muscle strength and bone strength in postmenopausal women with Osteoporosis: A six-month RCT

Because they have low bone mass, women with osteoporosis are at increased risk of fractures caused by falls. Reducing both bone loss and the risk of falling are essential in helping women prevent fractures. While previous research has shown that regular physical activity can optimize bone health and reduce the risk of falling by improving muscle strength, reaction time, and balance, little is known about what types of exercises are most effective. Teresa Liu-Ambrose is examining which exercise program works best for women who are at risk for falls: exercises that focus on either strength or agility, or programs that incorporate exercises for strength and agility equally. The findings from Teresa’s study will be incorporated into community-based exercise programs throughout BC to help women with osteoporosis reduce their risk of falls and fractures. In addition to improving quality of life for women with osteoporosis, a decrease in fractures would also lessen the enormous health care costs associated with fall-related injuries.