Funding fuels Western brain disease research

By Adela Talbot
January 09, 2014

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New funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) will help a Western researcher unlock a previously underexplored portion of the brain, giving his team a unique look into how certain diseases attack.

Shawn Whitehead, who teaches in Clinical Neurological Sciences and the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, is a neuroscientist and lipid biochemist. His latest project, CFI announced Wednesday, will get a boost of more than $260,000 – money he feels will posit Western as a leader in biolipid molecular imaging as it relates to brain degeneration.


The project, Novel molecular imaging platform to elucidate the role of membrane lipids in neurodegeneration, falls under CFI’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund (previously named Leaders Opportunity Fund).

Additional funds from the Ontario Research Fund, as well as the university’s financial backing, will roughly double the new CFI funding for Whitehead’s lab.

Whitehead’s research looks at various animal models of brain disease, by which he has pioneered and developed lipidomic approaches to image and characterize roles that brain lipids play in the pathogenesis of brain disease.

An expert in the development and characterization of rodent models of brain disease,  Whitehead is widely recognized in his field, and has developed a patent for an animal model of Alzheimer’s disease.

His work looks to answers questions such as: What makes different regions of the brain vulnerable to different types of attack? Why do some areas become more vulnerable to degeneration following a stroke, while others are more vulnerable to degeneration in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s patients?

The infrastructure, funded by the CFI grant, will provide Whitehead’s lab with a molecular imaging research facility that will help the team answer these types of questions. The money will fund a mass spectrometry suite capable of performing imaging mass spectrometry.

“It will support a new platform suite to do molecular imaging on tissue specimens. You’re combining the power of analytical chemistry with a spatial reference point and this (spectrometer) is the only technology that will do that,” said Whitehead, a relative newcomer to Western, having started in his position less than one year ago.

“It’s pretty cutting-edge and we would be one of a handful of labs in the country that can actually do it, and one of the best labs positioned to do this (kind of research),” he added.

“What this will help us do is better develop models of brain disease. It will help identify potential new targets in terms of identifying how the disease processes are taking place, and help us identify new biomarkers to target disease therapeutically.”

The new infrastructure is basically combining the powers of a microscope and a mass spectrometer to provide detailed information on the molecular level.

“We can get a better understanding of specific molecular events that take place, especially at the lipid level in nerve degeneration. This is an untapped area,” Whitehead continued.

He noted it is challenging – and messy – to deal with lipids and the new equipment will help the lab detect changes and new targets for therapeutic intervention.

“We are poised to become leaders in this field. We will have cutting-edge infrastructure from this award. We already have pretty good, up-to-date equipment to do the work. But this will help us buy superior imaging and analytical power. We think this will put Western as a leader in the field.”

Whitehead’s lab has already been on the receiving end of a five-year grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada as well as a five-year grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.


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