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U of T researchers to investigate environment’s health impact

CIHR grants will fund research on how environmental factors such as air pollution contribute to chronic conditions

Anti-air pollution protesters lying on the ground in London, England

Anti-air pollution protest in London, England ( Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Four researchers at the University of Toronto and its affiliated research centres are receiving $2-million each to investigate how environmental factors can impact health. The funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research was announced today by federal health minister, the Honourable Jane Philpott.

“This research funding will enable researchers to use these new technologies to better understand the complex interactions that cause chronic disease, and ultimately help us to identify better ways to prevent and treat chronic disease conditions,” said Philip Sherman, scientific drector of the CIHR Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes.

Those funds will help Professor Jennifer Gommerman investigate autoimmune disease in South Asian Canadians. As she explains, the project will provide insight on how a change in one’s environmental setting can impact health.

“We know little about the impact of global migration on health and disease” - Jennifer Gommerman

“Immigration often transplants individuals and families into radically different environments in terms of climate, prevailing diet, exposure to microbial pathogens, exposure to pollutants, and changes in lifestyle dictated by economic necessity; yet, we know little about the impact of global migration on health and disease,” says Gommerman, an immunology professor.

“I am glad to be joined in this work by Dr. Ken Croituru, a clinician-scientist at Mount Sinai Hospital working on inflammatory bowel disease, who be the clinical lead for this project.”

This work will help patients like Rasheed Clarke who suffers from ulcerative colitis.

"My parents are both from India and I still have family who live there. I was born in Canada and developed ulcerative colitis. There was never a case of inflammatory bowel disease in my family. So I wonder, what is it about the environment here that triggered UC in me? I have the feeling that I wouldn't have developed colitis if I was born and raised in India, but I don't know that for sure, which is why this research is so important," said Clarke.

This research is also being supported by Crohn's and Colitis Canada.

“Canada has among the highest rates of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in the world.  Increasingly we are seeing families new to Canada developing IBD for the first time,” says Mina Mawani, President and CEO, Crohn's and Colitis Canada. “This research will shed new light as to how our Canadian environment and diet contribute to the development of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and brings us closer to new ways to prevent and treat these diseases affecting nearly 250,000 Canadians.”

The other projects supported by the May 2 announcement are:

  • Immunology professor Alberto Martin will investigate the impact gut microbiome and the environment can contribute to the development of colorectal cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Canada
  • Paediatrics professor Padmaja Subbarao, who is also a physician-scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children and co-director of the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) Study, will lead a team examining how gene and the environment effects lung health and the risk for chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Molecular Genetics professor Philip Awadalla, who is also a senior investigator at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and a principal investigator at the Ontario Health Study, will be examining the genetic and environmental factors associated with metabolic syndrome, which is a group of risk factors that can lead to chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and stroke

This funding is part of a total investment of $16-million over five years to support new research that will help find new ways to prevent or treat chronic conditions affecting millions of Canadians.

“By investing in health research, the Government of Canada recognizes that we are strengthening the foundation for a healthier Canada. This research will help reduce the burden of chronic conditions in this country and improve the lives of Canadians,” said Philpott.