University of Calgary

Health researchers awarded federal grants to continue work

UToday HomeJune 14, 2011

By Kathryn Sloniowski and Bob Hearn

Walter Herzog and his team will continue to look at unlocking new treatment methods for cerebral palsy patients. Photo by Riley BrandtWalter Herzog and his team will continue to look at unlocking new treatment methods for cerebral palsy patients.
Photo by Riley Brandt
Two senior University of Calgary researchers have been awarded Collaborative Health Research Projects (CHRP) Program grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Dr. Pere Santamaria from medicine and Dr. Walter Herzog in kinesiology were awarded $579,480 and $562,725 respectively. The CHRP Program supports focused collaborative research projects involving any field of the natural sciences or engineering and the health sciences. Projects are novel and lead to health benefits for Canadians, more effective health services and economic development in health-related areas.

Santamaria will use the money to continue his research on developing an immunoregulatory nano-vaccine for the treatment of type 1 diabetes. Herzog will continue his study into the chemical denervation of spastic muscles using botulinum toxin type-A (BTXA) during the treatment of cerebral palsy.

While his study focuses on the vaccine for the treatment of type 1 diabetes, Santamaria hopes that in the future similar vaccine models could be used to treat other autoimmune diseases.

Autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, are the result of a ‘misunderstanding’ in the body’s immune system. White blood cells, responsible for warding off foreign proteins leading to illness, sometimes mistakenly attack the body’s own ‘good’ cells, resulting in an auto-immune disease. The nano-vaccine works in such a way that very small particles are coated with proteins that essentially trick the white blood cells into believing they are going after what they recognize as being a foreign protein. Santamaria said the attack on the decoy protein stimulates the body to “put the brakes on the disease … and to stop the disease from progressing further,” says Santamaria. At this point, the vaccine is being researched as a therapeutic vaccine that would likely require boosters. “We have to periodically remind the immune system to put the brakes on.”

While Santamaria says the current model of the vaccine works well in an animal model, some final improvements are still required. Consequently, the vaccine has not gone into human trials as of yet, however such trials are foreseeable in the very near future. Santamaria says the goal of the research is to “further optimize key design variables to maximize therapeutic efficacy once we begin clinical trials.” The goal is to obtain maximal therapeutic efficacy at the lowest possible doses and the fewest possible injections of the drug. The CHRP-funded research aims to complete this milestone.

Dr. Pere Santamaria is developing an immunoregulatory nano-vaccine for the treatment of type 1 diabetes.Dr. Pere Santamaria is developing an immunoregulatory nano-vaccine for the treatment of type 1 diabetes.Cerebral Palsy (CP) is an umbrella term designating a group of non-progressive neurological disorders. Herzog’s team is testing the hypothesis that direct muscle stimulation training prevents BTXA-induced muscle atrophy, fat invasion and structural degeneration of target and non-target muscles in patients with CP. They are also looking at developing a small and easy to operate functional muscle stimulation unit for safe use by patients at home. If successful, the results of this study will have a direct and profound impact on BTXA treatments in CP patients.

“BTXA treatments are transient providing just temporary relief for CP patients,” said Herzog. “In our work, we search for alternative treatment modalities that one day will make BTXA treatments and surgical interventions obsolete and provide improved quality of life for CP patients.

Santamaria is chair and director of the Julia McFarlane Diabetes Research Centre, founder of Parvus Therapeutics, Inc., a start-up company of the university that seeks to develop and commercialize the nanovaccine therapeutic platform, and member of the microbiology and infectious diseases department and The Calvin, Phoebe and Joan Snyder Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation.

Herzog is the co-director of the Human Performance Laboratory, a professor in the kinesiology, engineering, medicine and veterinary medicine faculties. Among his many accomplishments include recently being named Killam Memorial Chair, along with a Killam Fellowship, an NSERC CREATE Training Programme for Biomedical Engineers for the 21st Century and an Alberta Heritage Foundation for Health Research Team grant on osteoarthritis.