This is a modification of the original article from the Queen’s Gazette on June 4th, 2024.

The research challenging the frontiers of medical science has received a significant investment from the federal government through the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF). In an announcement for the NFRF Exploration program by Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of National Revenue, on behalf of François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, and Mark Holland, Minister of Health, $33 million will be invested to advance exploratory research. Four research projects at Queen’s have secured a total of $1 million, including $500K for Chemical Engineering to pursue new avenues into research for treating chronic wounds, and improving success of implantable medical devices.

“The investments announced today help bring world-leading researchers together to work on innovative research projects that could have significant impacts,” says the Honourable Minister Champagne. “By bringing disciplines together in unexpected ways, we are responding to the challenges Canada and the world are facing.”

The NFRF Exploration program inspires high-risk, high-reward and interdisciplinary research. Researchers supported by the program are encouraged to think outside of the box and undertake research that would defy current paradigms, brings disciplines together in unexpected ways, and has the potential to be disruptive or deliver game-changing impacts. The funded projects from Queen’s will receive the maximum value of support, $250,000 over two years.

Diabetic foot ulcers (DFUs) are a debilitating complication that will affect up to 25% of people with diabetes. They also account for 70% of all amputations in Canadian hospitals. Lindsay Fitzpatrick (Chemical Engineering) and co-Principal Investigator Valerie Ward (University of Waterloo) are leading a team (including Brian Amsden) that will develop a sustainable wound dressing for DFUs using genetically engineered living microalgae to resolve chronic inflammation and promote wound closure. Chronic wounds, such as DFUs, are of particular concern because they do not progress through the normal stages of wound healing due to chronic hypoxia (low levels of oxygen) and inflammation. Applying their expertise in biomedical engineering, chemistry, microbiology, genetic engineering, and immunology, the team is designing a dressing that enables adjustable, light-dependent oxygen production to mitigate wound hypoxia and in situ production of an omega-3 fatty acid derivative that can help promote the resolution of chronic inflammation. This novel photosynthetic, pro-resolving wound dressing is a high-risk effort that could greatly improve chronic wound care, benefiting individuals with DFUs, pressure ulcers, and slow-healing wounds. This sustainable, bioactive dressing also utilizes renewable resources without relying on human-derived stem cells or neonatal tissues and will pave the way for in situ production of other therapeutic molecules in future research. 

Some medical devices, whether sex-specific (IUDs) or universal (surgical mesh, hip replacements, etc.), produce harm in women and have bad reputations as the subject of costly legal challenges. However, as the body adapts to the foreignness of a medical device, it is not known if sex and sex hormones undermine device safety or effectiveness. Laura Wells (Chemical Engineering) and Katrina Gee (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) will lead a team to use surgical mesh as a prototype to develop humanized cellular and tissue models to test sex-specific immune responses to implantable medical devices. Their proposal will integrate sex-focused immunological data with a detailed probing of socially accepted definitions of patient outcomes to better define device failure/success. By challenging the conventional 'one size fits all' approach to device manufacturing, their research validates sex as a biological factor in device performance. This effort not only addresses theoretical concerns about greater female inflammatory potential but also seeks to untangle the complexities contributing to device failure in women. Ultimately, their findings could lead to improvements in testing and approval processes for medical devices, despite potential challenges from industry interests.

To learn more about these and other NFRF-funded projects, visit the Canada Research Coordinating Committee website.