Matthew Terada, October 12, 2021

Innovative Health Research at Carleton Supported by CIHR Project Grants

Carleton University’s Melissa Chee, Kristin Connor, and Marylynn Steckley are separately innovating health research supporting a diverse portfolio of key areas of discovery—from investigating dietary fructose and its effects on the brain, to the role of the gut microbiome on fetal spina bifida, to gender-inclusive food security and health in Haiti. Their work is supported though funding by the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) Project Grant program.

Chee, an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience, is investigating the misunderstood effects that fructose has on—not just the human body—but on our brain’s ability to regulate food-related behaviour.

Department of Neuroscience Assistant Professor Melissa Chee

Hunger is driven by a stimulatory trigger in the brain through specialized cells known as Neuropeptide Y (NPY) cells. This stimulatory input decreases latency to eat, increases motivation to eat and delays satiety by augmenting meal size. Chee’s research has uncovered that this stimulatory input to NPY cells is possibly produced when consuming fructose—mimicking the state of the brain when famished—leading the body to overconsumption, further resulting in obesity.

“Our basic research is fundamental for understanding how sugars impact brain health,” said Chee. “By identifying the critical brain cells supporting the interaction between sugars and the brain, we are hopeful that this knowledge will allow us—the scientific community—to intercept this maladaptive signaling.”

By analyzing feeding behaviour, body composition, energy expenditure, and locomotor activity in mice fed high fructose diets, and interpreting electrical impulses in the brain, Chee and her team are hoping to uncover whether male and female brains react to fructose similarly, and locate the brain cells that produce this stimulatory input in NPY cells.

“We think this is an important question because once we know their identities, then we have the potential to interrupt their activity and disrupt their obesogenic actions,” said Chee.

Chee hopes to shed light on the mysterious behaviour of the brain in relation to fructose-induced obesity, uncovering the health effects that the widely-consumed sweetener has on the human body.

“We are well-positioned to provide high-quality scientific evidence to support food policy changes that improve health conditions in Canada. For example, outcomes of our work may encourage regulatory initiatives that restrict the marketing of unhealthy foods and to enforce accurate reporting of added sugars in foods.”

Connor, an associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences, is working with her team to understand the mechanisms that contribute to the ongoing prevalence of spina bifida in newborns.

Spina bifida, a subtype of neural tube defects (NTD), is one of the most common birth defects, occurring in one per 2,000 babies across North America, but current counteractive measures only prevent around half of those cases. Public health strategies to prevent NTDs include the mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid and recommending prenatal folic acid supplementation. Yet, many reproductive-aged women still fail to reach adequate red blood cell folate levels and vitamin B12 levels which can increase the chances of carrying a fetus with spina bifida.

Department of Health Sciences Associate Professor Kristin Connor

“We know so little about development and pregnancy,” said Connor. “In part, because they are both incredibly complex processes and also because research in women’s, infants’ and children’s health is completely undervalued.

“We think the maternal gut microbes and the placenta play a role in the pathogenesis of NTDs and their comorbidities, and novel interventions targeting these can help to prevent fetal spina bifida and/or reduce the burden of this condition, and improve maternal health.”

Connor and her team are exploring the gut microbiome and placenta and their roles in the production and transport of micronutrients in pregnancies complicated by fetal spina bifida. By linking microbiome changes to other data about the pregnancy, including maternal nutrient levels, Connor, and her colleague Tim Van Mieghem (Sinai Health System), hope to identify new biomarkers for high-risk pregnancies and show that a pre/probiotic intervention is an effective and safe way to improve the maternal gut microbiome and placental development and function, and prevent fetal spina bifida.

“Ultimately, my research aims to develop novel ways to predict individuals at-risk for poor pregnancy outcomes, suboptimal growth and development, and later disease risk, and develop novel intervention strategies, particularly those using dietary approaches, to optimize early developmental trajectories and reduce the incidence of chronic disease due to adverse early-life exposures.”

Steckley is an instructor III in Global and International Studies who is examining possibilities for a gender-inclusive, community-based food sovereignty assessments of health in Haiti—the most food insecure nation in the western hemisphere. Steckley and her team are developing an integrated knowledge translation approach to understand how food security assessments overlook gendered disparities, and how community-grounded assessments can better gauge unique local determinants of health and nutrition.

By developing a Gender-Inclusive Food Sovereignty Assessment of Heath (GIFSA) tool, Steckley and her team are striving to respond to community calls for more integration. The GIFSA assessment tool—created alongside and tested by community partners—will provide a holistic assessment of health, including the gendered dimensions of access to healthy food, nutrition, land and social relationships.

Global and International Studies Instructor Marylynn Steckley

“We want to develop a food sovereignty assessment that takes into consideration more than just nutrition and caloric value and food frequency, but also considers women’s access to land, the environmental quality of the communities that they’re participating in, and how their food production and consumption can complement environmental health and community health,” said Steckley.

Haiti, a nation where 80 per cent of rural dwellers are food insecure, has seen meaningful changes in its food, agriculture and nutrition policy in recent years, with food sovereignty now recognized as a national goal. Steckley and her research team want to ensure that this agro-food planning approach supports gender-inclusivity and community interests.

“My project is really trying to see food as a mode of understanding the integration of politics, social systems, environments and health, and to try to support gender-inclusive community-based research, and visions for food sovereignty.”

The CIHR Project Grant program is designed to capture ideas and engage impactful research in all areas of health—enabling new, innovative and incremental advancement in health-related research and knowledge translation projects.

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