Two FoMD members named Canada Research Chairs

Developing a treatment for infant respiratory infection and improving understanding of disease the areas of focus for two new CRCs

By Raquel Maurier on November 15, 2013

Ben Montpetit and David Marchant have been named Canada Research Chairs – bringing the Faculty’s CRC total to 28. The prestigious award is given to “exceptional emerging researchers” who are considered future leaders in their fields.

Montpetit’s research will focus on developing a better understanding of information delivery in the cell and how disease arises from errors in this process, while Marchant will work to find a treatment for RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) – a common infant respiratory infection that costs the Canadian health-care system $18 million a year.

“It’s a great honour to get this type of funding and acknowledgement,” said Montpetit, who works in the Department of Cell Biology within the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. “It’s very exciting to see the government invest in your research and see its long-term potential.”

Montpetit’s research team will focus their work on a fundamental aspect of cell biology – specifically, how messenger RNAs carry genetic information from DNA to the rest of the cell. His team wants to know how this process works and how it is interrupted in disease or by viruses, which can take over and “manipulate the process to favour their production in the host cell.”

Their work could advance the scientific understanding of disease and lead to improved clinical treatments.

“We are trying to understand how the cell functions, so we can better understand how disease arises,” Montpetit said. “Then we can pinpoint where we should be looking for therapies and drug targets.”

Meanwhile, Marchant’s team will focus on finding a treatment for RSV – the number one reason for infant hospital admission worldwide. Babies who suffer severe RSV infections have a 10-fold increased risk of developing asthma by age 10.

His group is working with the Alberta Provincial Laboratory for Public Health, PROVlab, to monitor the different strains of RSV in Alberta and Western Canada, and how the virus changes and adapts throughout infection season, which is typically winter.

“We are setting up a surveillance system to monitor how it spreads and mutates,” Marchant explained. “And we want to monitor RSV’s potential drug resistance. I think this is an important area of research because there is no treatment for active RSV infection – and it has long-lasting health impacts on children and the health-care system.”

Marchant said his team has discovered a potential new treatment for RSV that has been tested in the lab on mice. They pinpointed the molecule in the cell that RSV has to cling to in order to spread infection. Their drug tricks RSV into thinking it is this molecule it has to bind to, then the drug deactivates the virus.

They are now working with the Applied Virology Institute on drug development. Marchant hopes that at the end of his five years of CRC funding, a new treatment for RSV will be in a safety trial.

“We couldn’t do this without the institute – they really are the missing link between academic discovery and commercial development in the field of virology and immunology,” Marchant said.

Both researchers are Tier 2 CRCs. Montpetit was named CRC in RNA Transport and Marchant was named CRC in Viral Pathogenesis.