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New researchers awarded over $1.6M to establish health research in SK

Drs. Dhar, Banerjee and Kelvin. Image Credit: VIDO.

Building capacity in Saskatchewan’s research ecosystem means we are better able to respond to health challenges and improve health outcomes locally. SHRF Establishment Grant funding attracts and retains early-career researchers who have the knowledge and expertise needed to build successful programs of research and bring further research funding to Saskatchewan from national and other funding agencies.

In addition to building successful research programs, the impact of this work comes at the local level when considering the health challenges and research questions these researchers are working to improve. The full list of recipients and topics is provided below, and includes research in a wide range of areas, including Long COVID, medical assistance in dying, loneliness in older adults, and rural mental and physical health.


This year's recipients include three researchers from the Centre for Health Research, Innovation and Scholarship (CHRIS) at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, marking the first time Establishment Grant funds have been awarded to Saskatchewan Polytechnic. CHRIS was created around the four pillars of scholarship: application, discovery, integration and teaching. CHRIS has a goal of contributing to moving contemporary knowledge of nursing, healthcare and health sciences forward in ways that are innovative, practical, feasible, effective and efficient.

“This is the first time Saskatchewan Polytechnic has received

SHRF Establishment Grants. Congratulations to our three grant

recipients! These grants will help Sask Polytech health researchers

continue the excellent work they are doing in the areas of

mental health, caregiver resources and older adult loneliness.

Sask Polytech’s Centre for Health Research, Innovation and

Scholarship continues to make a difference in healthcare research

in Saskatchewan and beyond.”

Dr. Madeline Press, Centre for Health Research, Innovation and

Scholarship (CHRIS) Director

Read more about the research at Saskatchewan Polytechnic:


Three recipients are from the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO). These researchers are working on advancing knowledge on infection and treatment for coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2 and MERS-CoV, Tuberculosis, and Long COVID. Increased funding for researchers at VIDO helps contribute to future capacity as part of Canada’s response for possible future pandemics.

“As VIDO becomes Canada’s Centre for Pandemic Research, the support from organizations like SHRF will drive important research to protect the health and wellness of the people in this province and help us attract the brightest minds in the world to Saskatchewan,” said VIDO Director and CEO Dr. Volker Gerdts.

Read more about VIDO's research and capacity development:


Funding Recipients

Alyson Kelvin | University of Saskatchewan | $120,000

Long COVID in Saskatchewan: Defining Long COVID inflammation for the development of diagnostic tests and the identification of therapeutics

Not everyone who develops COVID-19 recovers quickly. People who experience continuing or new symptoms after initial COVID-19 such as fatigue, difficulty breathing, joint pain, and memory issues are now recognized as having ‘Long COVID'. Long COVID has been reported in 30% or more of recovering COVID-19 patients. However, there is limited understanding of this illness overall including its cause, how to diagnosis it, and how to treat people who are suffering. In a related descriptive nonbiological project, myself and a team of researchers established the SASK Long COVID app to help understand Long COVID in Saskatchewan. From this study, over 180 people registered for follow up studies.
In this study, I will take a biological approach to define how the immune system is dysregulated in the long-term phase of Long COVID. Antibodies and inflammation markers in the blood of Long COVID patients will be investigated. Specifically, I will determine the amount and function of COVID-19 related antibodies in people with Long COVID as I suspect that Long COVID patients will have antibodies that are not as effective at blocking virus infection. Additionally, I will quantify the levels of inflammatory markers called cytokines through a technique called cytometric bead array specifically focusing on inflammatory cytokines that have approved pharmacological treatments such as IL-1beta, IL-6, and TNF-alpha. This work will not only illuminate the possible causes of immune dysfunction and Long COVID disease it may suggest strategies for diagnosis or treatment.

Angelica Lang | University of Saskatchewan | $118,412

How do time and rural residence affect the progression of chronic shoulder injuries?

Upper limb pain is extremely common. The most frequent cause of pain and disability of the upper limb is injury to rotator cuff muscles, the small muscles surrounding the shoulder. Our team’s previous research suggests there are movement strategy alterations that are related to rotator cuff disease development, but more research is needed to define this relationship. Further, the effect of rural residence on musculoskeletal health needs to be considered due to the social, occupational, and health care access differences that exist compared to urban dwellers.
The goal of this project is to better understand the biomechanics, or movement, aspects of rotator cuff disease over time to prevent injury progression and improve rehabilitation outcomes for people with shoulder pain in Saskatchewan. In this study, people with rotator cuff disease will be recruited from urban centers and rural areas of Saskatchewan. Upper limb motion and muscle activity will be measured during a novel work-related activities and functional task protocol at three points over one year. The relationship of biomechanics, time since injury, and location of residence (rural/urban) will then be assessed. Defining this relationship, and including a subset of rural Saskatchewan individuals, will provide novel insight into how rotator cuff disease progresses and how location of residence may influence that progression. The findings from this study will lead to more rural-specific testing and treatment recommendations, including rehabilitation and return-to-work considerations for people with rotator cuff disease in Saskatchewan.

Arinjay Banerjee | University of Saskatchewan | $120,000

Deciphering molecular interactions that promote disease severity during infection with two highly pathogenic betacoronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 and MERS-CoV

Betacoronavirus (Beta-CoV) is one of four genera of coronaviruses (CoVs), which includes severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), SARS-CoV-2 and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). MERS-CoV evolved in 2012 and causes seasonal outbreaks in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). MERS-CoV is listed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a pandemic threat. SARS-CoV-2 emerged in December 2019 and has caused a global pandemic. MERS-CoV has a higher case fatality rate of ~35%, compared to 0.4% - 15.4% for SARS-CoV-2 depending on age and region. Despite notable differences in case fatality rates, factors that contribute to differences in disease severity on infection with MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 remain unknown. Both SARS-CoV-2 and MERS-CoV are speculated to have evolved in bat species, and global bat species harbour numerous beta-CoVs with zoonotic potential. Indeed, there remains a risk for additional beta-CoV emergence in the future.
Thus, to better understand factors that drive differential disease severity during beta-CoV infections, we will comparatively study antiviral responses that are generated upon infection with MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2. We will also assess the differences in the ability of MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 to block cellular immune response. Finally, to address the question if SARS-CoV-2 and MERS-CoV can recombine, we will determine their recombination potential using non-infectious assays. Understanding factors that contribute to differences in disease severity on infection with SARS-CoV-2 and MERS-CoV will enable us to design better antivirals and immunotherapies for current and future emerging beta-CoVs.

Heather Nelson | Saskatchewan Polytechnic | $119,277

Examining the impact of a phone intervention on mood and loneliness in older adults living in assisted living and private care facilities

The United Nations has declared 2021-2030 the decade of the older adult and is highlighting the need for older adult research. In light of this declaration the World Health Organization has called for older adult research to examine interventions to reduce loneliness. Loneliness causes a variety of physical and mental health challenges and shortens lifespan. It is essential to examine ways to better support older adults particularly those living in care facilities. Older adults living in care facilities are more than twice as likely to experience loneliness as older adults living in the community.
This mixed-methods research aims to examine if a weekly volunteer phone intervention with older adults living in personal care homes and assisted living facilities will reduce loneliness and improve mood. Older adults will be paired with volunteers and complete weekly 20-40-minute phone conversations for 6 months. Participants will complete surveys to measure loneliness and mood before the start of the phone intervention and at the three month and six-month point. Participants will also complete interviews at three and six months. This research has the potential to improve the lives of older adults in Saskatchewan through examining an intervention that has the potential to decrease loneliness and improve mood.

Janine Brown | University of Regina | $117,004

Multiple sclerosis and medical assistance in dying: A qualitative exploration of patient and family-centered care

MS may be associated with progressive loss of autonomy and quality of life, which may lead to medical assistance in dying (MAID). Individuals living with MS deserve open conversations about care options. There is a lack of research regarding patient-and-family-centered care where MS and MAID care intersect to support practice. Through listening and interpreting what participants tell us, we will describe the perspectives and experiences of individuals living with MS and their care partners concerning MAID. Our team includes patient study advisors, a nurse MAID researcher, a rehabilitation physician practicing MS care along the entire disease course, a geriatric psychiatrist involved in MAID research, practice, and policy development, the MS clinical director, and the Saskatchewan MS research chair.
Recruitment for participants is possible because of an established clinical research database of over 700 people living with MS who have consented to be contacted. Potential participants will be invited to share the study recruitment notice with their care partners. Data collection will occur through semi-structured, individual interviews with approximately 40 participants (20 individuals living with MS and 20 care partners) and 10-15 key informants (i.e., care providers). We will review the data within the context of the participants' demographics. The study findings will be shared with participants to support response validation. This research will enhance the understanding of MS and MAID for individuals livings with MS, care partners, care providers, policymakers, and knowledge users. This information will establish best practices and support continued health system improvement for dignified, high-quality care for all in the MS community.

Jay Shavadia | University of Saskatchewan | $100,923

Evaluation of withdrawal of beta-blocker therapy in patients treated with coronary artery bypass surgery

Beta-blockers are a class of medications almost universally prescribed in patients treated with open heart surgery for narrowings within their heart arteries (coronary artery disease). The evidence for using this group of medications is strongest if patients are known to have a weakened heart muscle or an arrhythmia. In the absence of these, it is unclear if beta-blockers provide any benefit. In fact, there are several ongoing studies aiming to address this question, however, patients treated with open heart surgery have generally been excluded from these ongoing trials.
The current proposal seeks to evaluate the role for beta-blockers in patients who otherwise have no additional reason for being on a beta-blocker after open heart surgery. This study has already been initiated in Saskatoon but aims to expand recruitment at Regina General Hospital to facilitate patient recruitment and have multisite engagement

Jessica Sheldon | University of Saskatchewan | $120,000

More than just allergy: how histamine impacts infection by a multidrug resistant pathogen

Histamine is a chemical that is best known for its function in allergy, but also plays a role in the immune response to infection. Upon exposure to an allergen or foreign invader, immune cells such as mast cells release histamine and other inflammatory molecules. Histamine has diverse effects, many of which are associated with allergy symptoms, including increasing blood vessel leakage, and enhancing mucus production. Blood vessel leakage is important, as it allows immune cells to escape into damaged tissues to engage the threat. Interestingly, some bacteria are also capable of producing histamine. Acinetobacter baumannii is a pathogen that not only is highly resistant to antibiotics, but also makes histamine. In A. baumannii, histamine is generated to help the bacteria capture iron, an essential growth-promoting nutrient.
The goal of this project is to understand how histamine availability and mast cells impact the outcome of A. baumannii pneumonia and bloodstream infections. We hypothesize that histamine worsens A. baumannii infection by enhancing the ability of the bacteria to obtain iron and by allowing them to hijack the local immune response, using congested airways and disrupted blood vessels to avoid clearance and promote spread. We predict that mast cells play a complex role, protecting against short term infection, but promoting widespread long-term inflammation. By defining the function of these players in A. baumannii infection, we will not only enhance our understanding of how this bacterium is able to cause disease, but also may uncover a potential avenue for treatment using preexisting antihistamine-based drugs.

Lise Milne | University of Regina | $119,958

Exploring the optimal conditions for implementing a trauma-focused prenatal group program in Saskatchewan

This project aims to uncover the necessary conditions to successfully implement a trauma-focused prenatal prevention program in Saskatchewan: Supporting the Transition and Engagement in Parenthood (STEP). Developed to support expectant parents who experienced childhood trauma, STEP is based on early childhood development research confirming significant risk of neurodevelopmental problems for infants born to parents who experienced childhood trauma. Support for expectant parents during their infant’s most vulnerable development phase is critical to their future development. Research clearly shows that preventive interventions lead to short- and long-term benefits for infants, including healthy attachment and optimal development in multiple spheres of functioning.
By supporting expectant parents with histories of childhood trauma, we aim to facilitate benefits for them such as increased knowledge and confidence, decreased stress and anxiety, and augmented peer and community support, thereby leading to enhanced resilience. Throughout this project, a multidisciplinary group of researchers from Social Work, Psychology, Neuroscience, Nursing, and Education will connect with key stakeholders and persons with lived experience in Saskatchewan, so that STEP is implemented in a way that reflects the needs of its citizens. We will produce and share accessible, innovative knowledge on the neurobiological impacts of trauma through continuous knowledge translation and mobilization, for and among knowledge users, trainees, researchers, and greater society.

M. Dean Chamberlain | University of Saskatchewan | $120,000

Development of 3D tissue engineered tumour microtissue models for precision medicine

There is great interest in the development of 3D tumour models that better mimic tumours from patients. These models can be useful in learning about the interactions of the tumours with their environment. They also have been shown to be better models for novel drug discovery than traditional methods. To date most of these models have been relatively simple in design. The aim of this grant is to develop methods to build more complex 3D models that contain not only the tumour cells but also the multitude of other cells that make up their environment. Also, these new tumour models will be made from cells collected from patients. This is challenging due to the limited size of the patient samples as the clinical needs for the tissue must come first.
We will use a modular tissue engineering approach that was pioneered by Drs. Sefton and McGuigan. In the proof-of-principle work of this grant cancer cell lines and tissues from tumours grown in animals will be used to optimize the design parameters of the tumour microtissues. After the proof-of-principle work outline within this grant this research will then be translated to patient samples. I have developed a strong clinical collaboration for precision medicine treatment of both breast and ovarian cancer. This will ultimately improve the patient experience here in Saskatchewan for women with cancer by personalizing their cancer treatments.

Michelle Collins | University of Saskatchewan | $120,000

Fishing for insights into mechanisms of heart rhythm disorders

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in Canada. We often think of the lifestyle risk factors that can lead to heart disease, yet, many heart diseases run in families, suggesting a contribution from our genes. In some cases, these genetic changes may alter how the heart develops or beats in the growing embryo. This can dramatically affect the heart later on in life, as the developing heart must be correctly formed to provide the foundation for a functional, mature heart.
My research program aims to identify genes required for heart development and function and understand how these genes work. Using advanced live imaging approaches, we can visualize the beating heart of zebrafish embryos to understand what happens to the heart in mutants with cardiac defects. By studying these phenotypes, we can shed light on how heart diseases arise. Building fundamental knowledge of heart formation and rhythm allows our lab to contribute to a critical gap in diagnosing and treating genetic cardiovascular diseases like heart arrhythmias.

Michelle Pavloff | Saskatchewan | $119,507

Saskatchewan Farmer and Rancher Mental Health (FARMh) Initiative

The long-term objective of this project is to develop The Network for Saskatchewan Farmer and Rancher Mental Health (FARMh) Research (referred to as The Network) by continuing to research farm-culture mental health support systems for agricultural producers and their families in Saskatchewan. The Network would be researched-focused and also provide agricultural producers and their families with interventions to support their mental health.
The goals of The Network are to: (1) conduct research on mental health support systems for agricultural producers and their families in Saskatchewan; (2) build bridges between researchers, academic institutions, patient family partners, industry partners, government, and knowledge users to support ongoing mental health support interventions and research tailored for farmers and ranchers. The vision of The Network is to establish an ongoing program of health research addressing this important health challenge for Saskatchewan people, and to achieve the research productivity necessary to obtain major funding from national and other external agencies for ongoing research of farmer and rancher mental health. The ongoing data collection and evaluation will be used to develop effective mental health supports that are tailored towards agricultural producers and their families to make Saskatchewan a global leader in farmer and rancher mental health research.

Natasha Hubbard Murdoch | Saskatchewan Polytechnic | $119,714

A realist evaluation of caring for a community-dwelling significant other: Saskatchewan caregiver perceptions of belonging and the impetus for action

A quarter of Saskatchewan people are caregivers for a significant other: family member, friend, neighbour, or family member of choice. Saskatchewan caregiver time is estimated to contribute $2.6 billion in unpaid resources such as tasks, personal care, and social connection; the equivalent of 153 million hours per year. Caregivers are invaluable to ensuring patients or residents remain and age at home in their community. Research with caregivers focuses on burden or unmet needs. Yet the sense of community arises out of social behaviours such as inclusion and connection. Caregiving is a complex intervention, and the role is approached from an intersectional perspective in a social rather than medical model.
The purpose of this research is to understand the caregiver experience of belonging when caring for community-dwelling significant others who may require care from interprofessional health and community teams and organizations. This research begins with a scoping review in a realist synthesis approach along with themes from an ethnography on the experience of caregiving for Saskatchewan residents. These experiences are then combined into a multi-phase realist evaluation to develop a testable theory of caregiving. The result is understanding how caregiving works and a description and prioritization of what caregivers need in their contexts to retain a sense of belonging in their communities. This interprofessional team will co-construct knowledge translation initiatives to support Saskatchewan caregivers. The intended audience for this research is the general public – the one in four caregivers who we all know.

Neeraj Dhar | University of Saskatchewan | $119,410

Solutions for improving the control of Tuberculosis by targeting specific bacterial sub-populations that will shorten the treatment times

Tuberculosis is a major problem in Saskatchewan. After several years with declining rates, the number of TB cases in SK increased by 75% in 2021 compared to 2019. This is especially an area of concern in Northern and indigenous communities, where the case rates are almost 10-20 times higher than the national average. TB persists due to socio-economic factors such as poverty, crowded housing, lack of nutrition and limited access to health care. We have effective drugs that can cure TB. The challenge is that the person diagnosed with TB, needs to take these drugs (up to 4 different drugs) everyday for a period of 6 months. This is a huge operational challenge to ensure adherence especially in resource-limited settings and often leads to patient dropouts and treatment failures.
Research has revealed that these long treatment is required as TB causing bacteria are able to form specific sub-populations that can survive against antibiotic treatment. Through this proposal, we would like to study these sub-populations and will screen compounds to identify drugs that can kill them. Introduction of these drugs into the TB therapy will accelerate the treatment of this disease and lead to better management and hopefully eventually eradication of this disease.

Nicole Hansmeier | University of Regina | $116,951

How to spot the next pandemic? Wastewater-based epidemiology for improved public health

The current COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how vulnerable our community is to new diseases and how much we need a surveillance system to identify and track diseases within the population. Traditional testing can often not be scaled up quickly enough to cover large populations, suffers from sampling biases and takes time and commitment of each community member. The goal of this program is to establish a low-cost and sustainable health surveillance system to track diseases without interfering with people’s personal life.
A promising strategy to survey a population in a timely manner is the analysis of wastewater streams. Many diseases can be identified in human fecal and urine specimen and are therefore trackable in the wastewater system. This program builds on an existing pilot project for wastewater-based SARS-CoV-2 surveillance and intends to address current challenges and limitations of wastewater-based epidemiology using the City of Regina as a model. In collaboration with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, the program will expand monitoring to seasonal flu and the contagious food-borne norovirus. Moreover, this program will assess how additional wastewater data can be used to improve health and disease monitoring. Overall, this program will build a robust surveillance program that will not only provide crucial information throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but will also develop new tools to better spot and prepare us for the next disease outbreak.

For more details on these and other SHRF-funded research, search our Results database.


About SHRF - Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF) is the provincial funding agency that funds, supports and promotes the impact of health research that matters to Saskatchewan. SHRF collaborates with stakeholders to contribute to the growth of a high-performing health system, culture of innovation and the improved health of citizens by strengthening research capacity and competitiveness, increasing the investment in health research in Saskatchewan and aligning research with the needs of our stakeholders.

For more information, please contact:

Chelsea Cunningham, SHRF Programs and Engagement Manager

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