Young Lab receives funding from the Emerging and Pandemic Infections Consortium to advance innovative infectious disease research

Top row (l-r): Alex Ensminger, Edward James, Robert Kozak, Michael Litvack, Theo Moraes. Middle row (l-r): Samira Mubareka, Michael Norris, Dana Philpott, Matthieu Schapira, Véronique Taylor. Bottom row (l-r:) Desmond van den Berg, Ying Wang, Nicole Weckman, Amy Wong, Edmond Young

The Emerging and Pandemic Infections Consortium is investing $1.05 million in innovative, cross-disciplinary research to tackle infectious threats and bolster preparedness against future outbreaks.

The funding, awarded through the Career Transition AwardsConvergence Postdoctoral FellowshipsNew Connections Grants and Proof-of-Principle Grants, will support researchers and senior trainees at the University of Toronto and partner hospitals. The 12 funded projects span a wide breadth of research topics from organ-on-a-chip models of infection to new approaches that aim to improve disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

“A key part of EPIC’s mission is to enable new transformative research through training and research opportunities. The funding announced today will accelerate discoveries and provide critical support for the next generation of infectious disease research leaders,” said Scott Gray-Owen, academic director of EPIC and a professor of molecular genetics in U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

“We were impressed by the number and quality of applications that we received to these four competitions, which is a testament to the strength and vibrancy of the infectious disease research community in Toronto. Thank you to our volunteer reviewers for supporting our peer review process and congratulations to all the recipients!”

Among the new grants announced today is the New Connections Grants, which provides $100,000 over two years to support projects led by researchers from at least two different research disciplines and who are coming together for their first significant research collaboration.

One of the two teams receiving a New Connections Grant is co-led by Nicole Weckman, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at U of T, and Robert Kozak, a clinical microbiologist at Sunnybrook Research Institute. The two researchers first met when they were invited to be on the same panel at a symposium on antimicrobial resistance co-hosted by EPIC and bioMérieux in November 2022. Building on their combined engineering and clinical expertise, their new project aims to develop a rapid diagnostic test that can detect the drug-resistant fungal pathogen Candida auris and predict the drugs to which a specific strain is resistant.

“The past few years have really highlighted the need to collaborate across disciplines to develop innovative systems and tools for tackling pandemics and infectious diseases,” said Weckman. “This project has brought together my engineering and diagnostics expertise with the clinical microbiology expertise of Rob and our collaborators Allison McGeer, Julianne Kus and Xena Li in a new collaboration to develop technologies for addressing Candida auris, a deadly pathogen causing hospital outbreaks.”

“As a new professor at U of T, EPIC has proven to be a fantastic and welcoming interdisciplinary network of expertise that fosters new collaborations and supports creative ideas for improving our healthcare systems.”

Like the New Connections Grant, the Convergence Postdoctoral Fellowships aim to foster cross-disciplinary collaboration by providing funding support to postdoctoral fellows who will work on a project co-supervised by faculty members from at least two different departments and/or divisions.

Three fellowships, each worth $120,000 over two years, were awarded this year, including to Ying Wang, a postdoctoral fellow co-supervised by Milica Radisic, a professor of biomedical engineering at U of T, and Slava Epelman, a clinician scientist at University Health Network.

Wang’s project seeks to uncover why males are at a greater risk than females of developing inflammation of the heart muscle, or myocarditis, after contracting COVID-19. To answer this question, she is creating sophisticated heart-on-a-chip models that also take into account biological sex differences such as hormone exposure. Her project will leverage the Toronto High Containment Facility to study SARS-CoV-2 infection in the engineered heart models in a safe and secure way.

One of the unique funding programs that EPIC launched this year was the Career Transition Awards. Designed specifically for experienced postdoctoral fellows and research associates, the awards provide $120,000 in funding over two years to allow recipients to develop and lead an independent project.

Michael Litvack is a research associate working with Martin Post, a senior scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children, and one of two recipients of the Career Transition Awards. Litvack’s project builds on his previous work developing a specialized immune cell that is specifically adapted to the lungs. His earlier work demonstrated the potential of these specialized cells to target viral lung infections. Now, he will lead an independent project to test whether these cells can attack the flu virus and reduce the burden of respiratory disease experienced during the flu.

“The Career Transition Award is a unique opportunity that will enable me to progress in my scientific and academic career while taking advantage of the vast technological and expert resources that Toronto has to support infectious disease research,” said Litvack.

“This funding will help me establish my program of study amongst EPIC investigators and will promote a strong foundation for me as I strive to build a sustainable and independent program focused on immune modulation and infectious diseases.”

The 12 projects were selected for funding as part of EPIC’s inaugural round of funding competitions, which include the previously announced Doctoral AwardsGlaxoSmithKline EPIC Convergence Postdoctoral Fellowship in Antimicrobial ResistanceInspire Summer Studentships and Researcher Mobility Awards.

For the full funding results, please visit our website.

– This story was originally published on the EPIC: Emerging & Pandemic Infections Consortium News Site on July 20, 2023 by Betty Zou.

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