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Amber Simpson welcomes the audience to the first edition of the Innovation for Good Symposium, which celebrates the team work of the Centre for Health Innovation's members.

Centre for Health Innovation home to research collaboration

Last week, our winter term got off to a fabulous start with some great news out of the Faculty of Health Sciences. Dr. Fernanda De Felice, an Associate Professor in the Centre for Neuroscience Studies,  co-authored a paper with collaborators at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro that appeared in Nature Medicine, a prestigious journal of medical research.  

Dr. De Felice’s publication shows that irisin, a hormone that is released by exercise, could help protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease. Speaking with the Queen’s Gazette, she says:

"In the past few years, researchers from many places around the world have shown that exercise is an effective tool to prevent different forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s. This has led to an intense search for specific molecules that are responsible for the protective actions of exercise in the brain. Because irisin seems to be powerful in rescuing disrupted synapses that allow communication between brain cells and memory formation, it may become a medication to fight memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease."

Realizing the potentially huge impact that Dr. De Felice’s findings could have, media outlets have widely circulated the study. In the UK alone, for example, everyone from The Daily Mail to the NHS to the BBC (at the 2:49 mark in the segment) is talking about this potentially ground-breaking study. In the U.S., The New York Times has covered the study. In Kingston, Global News has produced a story on the research.

Dr. Fernanda De Felice
Dr. Fernanda De Felice

As with all studies, it will still take some time to realize the full ramifications of the findings. The study has generated so much interest already, though, because it has the potential to improve the conditions of millions of people affected by Alzheimer’s.  

This article was originally published in the Queen's Gazette. Cover image: Amber Simpson welcomes the audience to the first edition of the Innovation for Good Symposium, which celebrates the team work of the Centre for Health Innovation's members.

An evolution of the Human Mobility Research Centre, the Centre for Health Innovation connects researchers from across disciplines to tackle the most pressing human health challenges.

Cancer, infectious diseases, health data, and personalized care. The biggest challenges for human health can only be addressed by combining a range of expertise and disciplines. To foster these connections, Queen’s and Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) have partnered on the Centre for Health Innovation (CHI) – an initiative that brings together interdisciplinary investigators to fuel a solutions-based approach to translational health research, applying knowledge generated at the university to improving patient care and health outcomes.   

“CHI integrates insights from the frontlines of care to understand the real-world experiences and needs of patients and healthcare professionals,” says Amber Simpson, director of CHI and Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Computing and Informatics. “We are multidisciplinary because we understand the creative and innovative power of inclusion will forge a path to the next generation of transformative healthcare for all.” Members of the new centre have diverse backgrounds – from expertise in medicine, engineering, science, and technology to the humanities.

The Centre for Health Innovation is an evolution of Queen’s Human Mobility Research Centre (HMRC), which connected experts in medicine, engineering, and computer science to develop innovative treatments for bone and joint disorders. CHI will continue this work, while broadening its goals to address other health challenges, like infectious diseases, and using advanced technology to optimize treatment, diagnostics, and patient outcomes through precision medicine.

Solutions-based health research

The CHI team will pursue cost-effective, high-tech solutions that can be implemented within our current healthcare systems. This includes training and mentoring students and post-doctoral fellows in medical informatics, preparing Canada’s healthcare workforce to deal with rapidly growing field of digital health data.

A pivotal new connection spearheaded by CHI is building synergies between artificial intelligence (AI) and cancer research. Queen’s experts are looking at how machine learning techniques and artificial intelligence solutions might help physicians interpret cancer spread through imaging tests like CT scans and make better treatment decisions. While exploring new possibilities brought on by advancing technologies, the CHI team will also investigate the bioethical implications of using AI to predict metastasis and survival probabilities.

Also crucial for the future of the multidisciplinary centre will be the creation of shared facilities amongst the research community. In partnership with the Canadian Cancer Trials Group (CCTG), the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and Queen’s faculty partners including Health Sciences, Arts and Science, and Engineering, CHI will undertake a large-scale expansion of histopathology and biobanking resources at KHSC. This will expand KHSC’s capacity as the home of the CCTG biobanking facility and support research that will help investigators study the pathological basis of diseases.

CHI is also developing a state-of-the-art genomics facility to allow the complete analyses of the DNA and RNA molecules in an organism. This expansion leverages work throughout the pandemic on sequencing COVID-19 variants of concern for the province as well as long-standing expertise in cancer biomarkers. Through CHI, investigators will have the ability to leverage genomics and histopathology with data science, a winning combination to change patient outcomes.

While CHI’s objectives and mission are firmly planted on the ground, its research goals also aim for the stars. With proximity to clinicians and access to the human tissue bank, an interdisciplinary team is looking at the impacts of space travel on health, including bone loss and aging.

“We expect the shared resources and specialized facilities will allow innovation in precision medicine and digital health, in alignment with private sector interests, informing government policy, and attracting R&D investment”, notes Dr. Simpson. “Building on the work of HMRC, we are establishing an integrated, truly multi-disciplinary facility that we hope will become a province- and nation-wide resource to support health innovation and research. Exciting things are happening and Queen’s and KHSC are proud to be at the forefront.”

On Monday, June 6 and Tuesday, June 7, researchers are invited to virtually join the “Innovation for Good” symposium, that will kick off the new centre’s activities showcasing innovative, radically collaborative health research occurring across Queen's and KHSC. For more information, download the event’s program. Click here to register and watch the sessions.

>If future studies support the case that irisin can protect against or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, these findings could lead to novel and impactful treatments. Researchers may even be able to develop medications that could increase irisin levels in the brain without exercise. As the majority of people suffering from Alzheimer’s are elderly and therefore more at risk of having conditions (such as arthritis and heart disease) that make exercising difficult, a drug that increases irisin could be crucial to treating patients with the disease.

I’m sure that I’m not alone in eagerly anticipating more findings from Dr. De Felice and her team. In the meantime, though, I want to congratulate everyone involved in this study and thank them for their hard work and dedication to research.

This also seems like a good opportunity to point out the excellent work that is coming out of the Centre for Neuroscience Studies more broadly. Last month on this blog, I had the chance to share some information about the highly impactful research program of Dr. Stephen Scott, another member of the centre. Without a doubt, Dr. Scott and Dr. De Felice are representative of the terrific team of researchers at Queen’s who are reshaping what we know about many aspects of the brain.

As we move forward in the winter term, I look forward to sharing more success stories from across the faculty with you.


Thank you to Andrew Willson and the Queen's Gazette for their assistance in preparing this blog. 

Cover photo by Rawpixel/Unsplash

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