Professors Nicole Charles, Andrew Beharry, Mary Cheng and Hai-Ling Cheng

New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF)

Carla DeMarco

Three UTM researchers awarded grants in the Exploration competition

From seeking new ways to examine diabetes to innovations in cancer and stem-cell therapy, three interdisciplinary research teams have received funding to tackle projects that have the potential to make a significant and widespread impact.

Sweet truth
Type 2 diabetes is a chronic illness that affects millions of people around the world, and Nicole Charles’s research regards the disease from an entirely new perspective: within the frame of sugar, slavery, and colonial rule in the Caribbean.

Earlier this year, Charles, an assistant professor in the Department of Historical Studies, was awarded nearly $250,000 for her project, “Sugar Made Us Free? Diabetes and the Afterlife of Slavery in Barbados: Art, Archive & the Gendered Dimensions of Risk.”

“Barbados is heralded as having significantly bolstered the British Empire through its sugar production from the mid-17th century through independence in 1966,” says Charles.

“Now, over fifty years later, sugar is still a prominent force in Barbados, and it is a central contributor to the country’s emerging epidemic of type 2 diabetes – a distinction that has won the country the colloquial title of ‘amputation capital of the world’ for its high incidence of diabetes-related amputations.”

Charles, who also has a graduate appointment at UofT’s Women and Gender Studies Institute, says that historians have previously made the connection of sugar in citizens’ diets and the “nutritional brutality associated with slavery,” however, from a public health standpoint, the ties to colonial history and the prominence of diabetes, particularly for Barbadian women, is a different point of entry for thinking through the stigma and beliefs in relation to the disease.

She is collaborating on this interdisciplinary project with Dr. Tonya Haynes from the Institute for Gender & Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus in Barbados.

In this study, which combines feminist theory, archival research, as well as arts-based methodologies, they will further define the various aspects that have influenced racialized and gendered risk factors for type 2 diabetes in Barbados. Charles and Hayes also aim to produce enhanced public health policy recommendations for the management and care for those who are afflicted with the illness in Barbados.

In addition, to foster public dialogue about diabetes risk, their knowledge dissemination and public engagement plan also includes a visual-arts exhibit featuring Barbadian artists to explore and curate the complexities of diabetes in Barbados within the lens of gender and history.

“Our project promises to demonstrate the value of socio-historically informed public health policy approaches to diabetes management and care in Barbados,” says Charles.

“The historical, transnational and gender dimensions of diabetes risk that this research examines will also have an impact beyond the boundaries of the Caribbean region and will be especially relevant across the African/Black and Caribbean diaspora globally.”


Illuminating cancer therapy with less light
Current cancer therapy relies on light being directed to cancerous cells to destroy them, but 
Andrew Beharry is looking at a more effective and alternate way to reach the cancerous tissue.

An assistant professor in the Department of Chemical & Physical Sciences, Beharry was awarded just over $244,000 in funding for his project, “Darkdynamic Therapy: Photodynamic Therapy without Light.”

“In photodynamic therapy [PDT], there is an agent called ‘singlet oxygen’ that is made by directing light at the tumour,” says Beharry.

“It is extremely toxic and effective at killing cancer.”

Beharry explains that light via PDT does help reduce toxicity to healthy cells, but it does not penetrate deep enough to reach all cells, so further intervention, such as incisions and fibre optics, is required to facilitate delivery of the singlet oxygen. He says that current therapy can be effective but “mostly for superficial cancerous lesions.”

“However, in our project we aim to produce singlet oxygen without the input of light, and instead use a process called ‘chemiluminescence resonance energy transfer’ that will spontaneously produce singlet oxygen, triggered by overactive enzymes that are uniquely found in cancers.”

Beharry is undertaking this work with collaborator Professor Christine Allen at UofT’s Faculty of Pharmacy.

“We are eager to see the results because, so far, the production of singlet oxygen to selectively kill cancer cells in vivo without the use of light, using a single small molecule, has not been previously studied,” says Beharry.

“If we can effectively kill cancer cells using this innovative ‘darkdynamic’ therapy, we will revolutionize the use of singlet oxygen for a variety of malignancies, beyond what is currently achievable by PDT.”


All in the family
Stem cell therapy research presents the opportunity to investigate a whole slew of health-related innovations, such as more effective treatment of impairments in the brain, mending a damaged heart, or restoring mobility.

For UTM Biology professor Mary Cheng, this research also provided another unique opportunity: the chance to collaborate with her sister.

Cheng’s sister, Professor Hai-Ling Margaret Cheng in UofT’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering, was awarded $250K for “On-demand, long-term cellular imaging for stem cell therapy,” and Mary Cheng is the co-applicant on the project.

“This NFRF project is our first collaboration and was based on a joint publication in iScience in 2020,” says Mary, an expert in genes that regulate the internal, biological clock.

“I am providing the genetic engineering and biology background, and my sister is the magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] physicist, and we are united in our shared passion for stem cell therapy.”

The aim of the project is to use MRI to facilitate an imaging platform that provides a revolutionary approach to visualize stem cells deep within the body in high resolution over a cell’s lifetime. This work will ultimately lead to the ability to map cell distribution, as well as several possible cell-imaging platforms, and regenerate tissue to take their work to the clinical level. For this particular project, they will focus on the heart, brain, liver, and cartilage.

“Scientifically, our platform will inform pre-clinical cell therapy research, allowing one to begin solving questions pertaining to cell survival, integration, and need for additional regeneration strategies,” says Margaret.

“Clinically, our platform will permit long-term patient monitoring, truly a first, to ensure continued normal transplant function and to allow early intervention.”

This is just the start for their work together though.

“We now have other projects that are ongoing, so along with this NFRF we have another, unrelated paper under revision currently with a journal,” says Mary.

“We have made plans to continue working together, to advance Hai-Ling’s stem cell therapy research line, as well as to do some MRI imaging of a couple of my animal models that mimic human diseases.”

The Office of the Vice-Principal, Research gratefully acknowledges this federal funding and the recognition of these innovative projects.

“This is such fantastic news, and we are absolutely delighted to see New Frontiers in Research Funds come to UTM researchers and for this support of their work on our campus,” says Associate Vice-Principal, Research Professor Elspeth Brown from the Department of Historical Studies.

“This is an investment in the exceptional scholarship of our researchers and the visionary and interdisciplinary work they are undertaking with colleagues – and even family members! – here in Canada and abroad.”

See the full list of recipients from the 2020 competition, visit the NFRF website