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2018 Recipients

Raj Bhargava Memorial Summer Studentship

Building a smartphone app to analyze MRI images of metabolic liver diseases

Kyle Hennig 
University of Alberta
Supervisor: Dr. Ravi Bhargava

Metabolic liver diseases, or, conditions in which abnormal chemical reactions in the body disrupt the metabolism, affect many children and youth with liver disease. For children in need of liver transplants, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is often required to screen for these disorders before they can be placed on the liver transplant list.

Kyle Hennig, a computer engineering student from the University of Alberta, recognized the need for a tool that can be used by multiple healthcare professionals to assess MRIs and the detailed analysis of accumulated substances in the brain.

Under the supervision of Dr. Ravi Bhargava, Kyle will work to design a smartphone application using an algorithm that will help to interpret MRI results. This work will enable a wide range of specialists like radiologists, pediatricians, gastroenterologists, surgeons and neurologists, to diagnose metabolic disorders much easier.

Operating Grants

Solving the mystery of biliary atresia with stem cells

Dr. Binita Kamath 
Hospital for Sick Children (Toronto)
Co-Applicants: Drs. Anand Ghanekar and Saul Karpen

Dr. Kamath and her collaborators believe that a defective gene found in the bile duct cilia (or, cell structures) is leading to liver inflammation, scarring and a severe childhood liver disease called biliary atresia with no known cause or cure yet.

Biliary atresia results when the bile duct that leads from the liver to the intestine becomes damaged and prevents bile from leaving the liver.

Dr. Kamath and her team will use novel technology to generate bile duct cells from stem cells created from patients’ blood in order to study how this gene mutation leads to the creation of defective bile duct cells.

Unrestricted Hepatobiliary Research

Disrupting liver cancer producing cells

Dr. Naglaa Shoukry
University of Montreal
Co-Applicant: Dr. Simon Turcotte

Liver cancer is a deadly and rapidly growing public health issue in Canada, with limited treatment options available for patients. Some of the risks of liver cancer include inflammation and scarring of the liver. Inflammation is caused in part by white blood cells which produce cytokines (proteins that send messages to the immune system at the site of damage or trauma).

Dr. Shoukry and her team have chosen to study a protein called IL-17; a well-known enhancer of inflammation and scarring that leads to liver cancer. The team will aim to determine which cells produce IL-17, when the cancer cells are signalled to enter into the liver, and how effective treatments can block cancer cells from entering.

Testing therapies on Canada’s most common liver disease

Dr. John Ussher
University of Alberta

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the accumulation of fat in the liver without the influence of alcohol. Current estimates suggest that 1 in 5 Canadians have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, leaving them susceptible to developing cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure. Current therapies are lacking in this growing epidemic.

Dr. Ussher and his team have recently discovered that a drug used to treat heart disease, ranolazine, may also reduce the severity of NAFLD. Ranolazine has shown promise in increasing sugar metabolism (how well your liver converts food into energy used by the body) and thus could reduce the impact of NAFLD.

This exciting new investigation will use disease models to confirm whether ranolazine directly reduces fatty liver by increasing liver sugar metabolism and could confirm whether ranolazine is a suitable treatment for NAFLD.

Designated Liver Cancer Research Grant in Ontario

Understanding the complex relationship between liver cancer and the immune system

Dr. Mamatha Bhat
University of Toronto
(Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation)
Co-Applicants: Drs. Daniel De Carvalho and Anand Ghanekar

Liver cancer is often diagnosed when it is too late to offer therapy that can cure the disease. Since liver cancer recurs in up to 20% of transplant cases, it is critical we find a way to earlier diagnose and treat this disease.

Research suggests that immune cells play a role in the development of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common form of cancer that starts in the liver. In order to recognize what exactly that role is, Dr. Bhat’s research team will analyze the genetic makeup of two types of tumours—recurring cancers that evolve in an environment where the immune system is overwhelmed by tumours, and recurring cancers that appear after a cancer-removing surgery (called resection) where the immune system is not overwhelmed by tumours.

This unique opportunity to explore the relationship between liver cancer and the immune system will help to identify better therapies in order to ultimately cure liver cancer.