CIDA fuels grad students' research in Africa

By Paul Mayne
September 13, 2012

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CIDAPaul Mayne, Western News
Microbiology and Immunology graduate students Amy McMillan and Jordan Bisanz will conduct their research in Africa for the next three months. The pair will be looking at ways of improving maternal and infant health in east Africa, thanks to a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency.

Microbiology and Immunology graduate students Amy McMillan and Jordan Bisanz have a 16-hour flight and a long layover ahead of them today – and they couldn’t be happier.

Thanks to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) the pair’s research projects, aimed at improving maternal and infant health in east Africa, have received part of a $195,000 grant earmarked for projects by 16 Canadian graduate students.

McMillan, a masters student, is headed to Kigali, Rwanda; Bisanz, a PhD student, is going to Mwanza, Tanzania. Both are supervised by Microbiology and Immunology professor Gregor Reid, who is also the director of the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics, and will be in Africa for three months.

McMillian, who will be teaming up with Stephen Rulisa, an obstetrician at the University of Rwanda, will centre her research around women’s health, in particular a condition called bacterial vaginosis (BV), which occurs when the good bacteria in the vagina are displaced by bad ones.

“BV increases a woman’s risk of pre-term labour up to three-fold,” McMillan said. “We are studying the small molecules in the vagina to look for clues as to why these conditions are occurring and to find diagnostic markers. We will also be carrying out a small probiotic trial on pregnant women with malaria.”

Both preterm labour and malaria are major causes of neonatal and maternal mortality in Rwanda. So these are important areas to research, she added.

Working with the Tanzanian National Institute for Medical Research, Bisanz will look at the ability of probiotics to reduce levels of environmental toxins in the human body.

“They would carry this out by detoxifying or binding toxins such as heavy metals,” Bisanz said. “These compounds are important as they have the ability to interfere with child development. This translational research is an extension of my thesis lab work and will be a pilot study for the application of probiotics in protecting against environmental toxin exposure.”

He has spent the past two years working on this project in the lab with test tubes. Now, he will see if what happened there translates to the human body.

“I am excited and nervous simultaneously for this reason,” said Bisanz, who worked with Western Heads East as an undergraduate. “Though I’m sure I will go through a bit of culture shock, it will be exciting to see a different way of life.”

For McMillan, it’s a “healthy nervous.”

“Apart from our research goals, I hope to build friendships that will lead to further collaboration for us in Kigali,” she said. “I would like to gain a better understanding of developing countries and an appreciation for how different people live around the world. I am comforted by the fact I have contacts here in Canada who have been to Kigali and have served as great resources in preparing for my trip.”

The CIDA-funded initiative is led by Dr. Victor Han, Canada Research Chair in Fetal and Maternal Health and a Pediatrics professor at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.


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