Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
June 16, 2021
Two vet med scholars awarded prestigious Canada Research Chairs
For a young and relatively small veterinary college, UCalgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) is punching well above its weight when it comes to outstanding research.
This week, the federal government announced more than 150 new and renewed Canada Research Chairs (CRC) at institutions across the country. Two of the three new CRCs awarded to UCalgary scholars are from UCVM.
Dr. Susan Kutz, DVM, PhD, professor at UCVM, was appointed as the Tier I CRC in Arctic One Health. Dr. Li-Fang (Jack) Chu, PhD, assistant professor, was appointed as the Tier II CRC in Cellular Reprogramming.
“Having UCVM awarded two of the three new CRCs at the University of Calgary is a sensational result,” says Dr. Hermann Schaetzl, MD, PhD, and associate dean of research at UCVM. “It drives home how truly exceptional our research program is and speaks to the world-class calibre of our research talent.”
Partnering with Indigenous communities to study the impact of climate change on Arctic wildlife
Kutz is a recognized expert in Arctic wildlife health and climate change. Her areas of expertise include wildlife parasitology and disease ecology, Arctic ecology, climate change, and community-based wildlife health surveillance.
For more than two decades, Kutz has worked with Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic and Subarctic to understand and track wildlife health in a rapidly changing landscape. The aim: to ensure the sustainability of wildlife for healthy ecosystems and as a traditional source of food and income for generations to come.
A unique aspect of Kutz’s approach is close collaboration with Indigenous communities. By bringing together local, traditional, and western scientific knowledge, community concerns around wildlife can be addressed and a deeper understanding of the Arctic gained. Through wildlife health surveillance programs, Inuit and First Nations hunters record data and collect samples from animals that they harvest for subsistence. Data and samples are then analyzed to address community concerns around food safety and animal health, and to answer specific research questions around wildlife health and ecology. Hunters report any abnormalities they may encounter in animals they harvest.
“People talk to each other, they learn from each other,” says Dr. Fabien Mavrot, DVM, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Kutz’s lab, who, along with Kutz, has spent significant time in northern communities building strong relationships. “It’s a good way to increase disease knowledge and awareness in those communities.”
A true One Health approach to addressing complex problems
“The Arctic is undergoing unprecedented ecological and socio-economic change,” says Kutz. Climate change has not only drastically altered ecosystems, but it has also put the Arctic on the radar internationally, providing improved access to rich sources of non-renewable natural resources, as well as new transport routes and tourism opportunities. “With these accelerating stressors, wildlife populations, food security, and the Indigenous way of life are increasingly at risk.”
Kutz’s One Health approach, working from the lab bench and experimental research to the field, bringing traditional and western knowledge together, seeks to address these threats to Arctic Peoples and ecosystems.
Kutz’s CRC funding allows her to expand on the world-class program she’s built over the years.
“I am thrilled to be recognized for the work that our group has done over the years and to be supported to grow this further,” says Kutz. “Our work is only possible through the strong partnerships with northern communities and governments.”
‘De-colonizing science’ and addressing the needs of northern communities
Kutz says the CRC helps advance northern science, while simultaneously supporting her efforts in “de-colonizing science and addressing the calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“It’s really good for the North. I'm excited to use this CRC support to advance what we can do with northerners, for the North.”
Understanding developmental clocks and the genetic and environmental factors behind spinal deformities
Dr. Jack Chu’s successful CRC Tier II application focused on using stem cells to model human and animal developmental clocks and related disorders. These include spinal deformity, a congenital condition where the patterning of embryonic spinal development during specific periods is misregulated.
The Chu lab is focused on developing a stem-cell derived model to mimic that early phase of development, hoping to pinpoint the genetic and environmental factors contributing to such deformity — and ultimately identify novel therapeutic targets.
“We’re focusing on the development of an in vitro segmentation clock system,” says Chu. “Genes go up and down in a rhythmic way that patterns the vertebrae column, so it develops with regular size and spacing. There’s a very rigorous ‘clock’ or timing period controlling each phase of vertebrae development.”
In congenital conditions, there are single gene mutations that lead to misregulation in particular signalling pathways. Using a stem cell model, and CRISPR gene editing technology, Chu can capture and manipulate this precise clock system.
“So, in a petri dish we can introduce patient-specific mutations based on CRISPR technology to help us understand the fundamental mechanism and how genetic and/or environmental factors could contribute to the spinal deformity.”Along with his CRC, Chu was granted a Canada Foundation for Innovation John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF) award; the JELF is a partner of the CRC program that provides foundational research infrastructure funding to help a select number of researchers become leaders in their field.
Susan Kutz is a professor in the Department of Ecosystem and Public Health at UCVM. She also holds the following positions at the University of Calgary: adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science; research associate at the Arctic Institute of North America. Kutz is a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Learn more about the Kutz Research Lab.
Li-Fang (Jack) Chu is an assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Biology and Experimental Medicine at UCVM. He is also a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. Learn more about the Chu Lab.