Notice: COVID-19 resources, information and plans for current and upcoming academic terms. Learn more.

U of R researchers receive $2.8 million to explore human health, medical advancements, and our existence in the universe

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: March 3, 2021 10:30 a.m.

Dr. Mauricio Barbi in his U of R research and development lab where he and his team are developing components for the Hyper-K project.
Dr. Mauricio Barbi in his U of R research and development lab where he and his team are developing components for the Hyper-K project. Photo: U of R Photography

From better understanding mitochondria – those tiny powerhouses providing energy to our cells – to further exploring neutrinos - those elusive subatomic particles that are the most fundamental and abundant in the universe, two University of Regina researchers have been awarded $2.8 million to delve into these areas of untold possibilities. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today announced more than $518 million to support the infrastructure needs of universities and research institutions across the country. 

Dr. Mohan Babu, associate professor of biochemistry, received a $1.4 million Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) Innovation Fund grant to discover innovative ways to lower the impact of chronic diseases while addressing the rising cost of treatment. 

03-031.jpg

Dr. Mohan Babu, associate professor of
biochemistry, in his University of Regina lab
processing samples in the high
performance liquid chromatography
(HPLC) machine. HPLC is a technique in
analytical chemistry used to separate,
identify, and quantify each component in
a liquid mixture.
Photo: U of R Photography

“Mitochondria exist in our cells, helping to turn the energy we get from food into energy that the cell can use. When mitochondria aren’t functioning correctly, they wreak havoc on our bodies. Mitochondrial dysfunction is in the spotlight for being a key factor in a range of chronic diseases, including psychiatric (bipolar disorder), neurological (multiple sclerosis), and metabolic disorders (obesity-linked non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) that require billions of dollars in annual healthcare costs. Current therapies relieve some disease symptoms, but their underlying molecular attributes remain unclear,” says Babu. 

Additionally, Babu says, researchers commonly observe that when pregnant women are exposed to environmental pollutants, their mitochondrial function is altered, leading to chronic disorders that cause poor birth outcomes and/or chronic issues. 

“This CFI funding will help us find answers by supporting the creation of the Mitochondrial Systems (mitoSYSTEMS) Research Centre at the University of Regina,” says Babu. “This unique facility on the Prairies will house 10 prominent researchers/clinicians who will uncover the role of mitochondria in chronic diseases and translate this data into drug targets through industry collaborations and with clinical trials for those with chronic diseases in Canada.”  

Babu says his research project will also complement current efforts at developing new technologies, and, with CFI’s contribution, will also relieve some of the pressure on Canada’s health-care system. 

While Babu is focused on human health and medical advancement, Dr. Mauricio Barbi is concentrating on the existence of galaxies, stars, planets, and even humans in the Universe. 

“This CFI funding will allow an international team of researchers to continue working on detecting elementary particles through the Hyper-Kamiokande project,” says Barbi, who is part of the effort that consists of 84 institutes in 17 countries.

03-032.jpg

Dr. Mauricio Barbi, PhD candidate
Luan Koerich and master’s student
Bruno Ferrazzi in the neutrino physics
lab at the U of R.
Photo Credit: U of R Photography

The Hyper-Kamiokande detector – called the Hyper-K – acts like both a microscope and telescope and is used to observe elementary particles and to observe the sun and supernovas using neutrinos.

Barbi, a U of R physicist who is a member of the International Board of the Hyper-K collaboration, is part of a team of researchers who received significant funding through CFI’s Innovation Fund. In total, the University of Victoria received $5.4 million to lead the Hyper-K project. Barbi and his team at the University of Regina received $1.4 million from the total grant.

Neutrinos are elusive subatomic particles that are fundamental and abundant in the universe. They are also incredibly difficult to detect, and, thus, are not well understood.

"Hyper-K will use state-of-the-art, highly-advanced technology to collect data from the interaction of neutrino particles and the detector,” says Barbi. “Our international team is essentially conducting a next-generation neutrino experiment with the main goal being to understand how the asymmetry between the production of matter and anti-matter allowed for the existence of galaxies, stars, planets, and even ourselves in the Universe.”

Among other components, Canada’s scientists are responsible for the photosensor system in the Intermediate Water Cherenkov Detector (IWCD) of the Hyper-K experiment.

“The IWCD is a water tank that’s eight-meters tall with a 10-metre diameter and instrumented with a suite of electronics components to measure the elusive neutrinos,” says Barbi. “These neutrinos can – when interacting with the oxygen in the water – produce other sub-atomic particles that can travel faster than the speed of light and create cones of light in the Water Cherenkov Detector.”

Barbi says the light produced in these cones is then collected with the photosensor system.

“Because each particle produces a cone of light that has specific characteristics, once reconstructed, we can identify the exact particles and the type of neutrino that interacted with the oxygen. From there, we can begin to extract the exact properties of the neutrinos – which literally opens up the universe to us.”

Barbi explains that these yet-to-be discovered neutrino properties can help to explain the mysteries of our universe.

“Neutrinos are used to better understand supernova explosions, the mechanisms acting in our sun, and the existence of all the structures we observe in the universe.”

Under his leadership, Barbi’s team is responsible for ensuring that some of the complex components developed in Canada for the Water Cherenkov Detector meet the specifications required to ensure the detector will operate optimally.

“We are also responsible for developing a component known as the scintillator detector, which helps to verify that what we detect are actually neutrinos and not some other type of particle.”

Kathleen McNutt, Vice-President (Research) at the University of Regina, says that while both of these projects focus on the tiniest of building blocks they will provide answers to some of humanity’s biggest questions. 

“These projects reflect the power that curiosity, research, and teamwork have on discovery,” says McNutt. “Dr. Babu and Dr. Barbi are collaborating with highly-qualified personnel to gain insights and solutions to fundamental questions about human disease and treatment and the very universe – and everything in it,” says McNutt. 

Babu and Barbi’s research is part of the Discovery area of focus in the University of Regina’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan kahkiyaw kiwȃhkomȃkȃninawak – All Our Relations. The University values and supports an environment that allows for high-quality teaching, research, and learning that strengthens the academic successes of our students and faculty and improves the lives of Canadians. 

The CFI’s Innovation Fund provides investments in infrastructure across the full spectrum of research, from the most fundamental to applied, and through to technology development. These infrastructure projects are intended to help Canada remain at the forefront of exploration and knowledge generation, and to support researchers in addressing global challenges and making meaningful contributions to social, health, environmental, and economic benefits for Canadians.

Related 

Federal funding announced for U of R researcher working to contain and combat COVID-19

Rare dinosaur skin offers insights into evolution

Government of Canada invests more than $3.7 million in innovative health research