Congratulations to Drs. Tao Huan, Manu Madhav and Brett Hilton on being named 2023 Michael Smith Health Research BC Scholars! The Scholar Program is one of Health Research BC’s flagship funding opportunities and supports early-career health researchers who are building leading-edge health research programs, training the next generation of scientists and expanding their potential to make significant contributions to their field.

Learn more about their research projects:

Tao Huan: Development of metabolomics to interrogate the effects of maternal sugar overconsumption on pregnant rats and their offspring

Project summary: Sugars such as sucrose (table sugar) are extremely common in the diet, in Canada and across the world. The World Health Organization advises that added sugars should make up 5 percent or less of daily calories for adults, and even less for children under two years. However, in Canada, adults and children often greatly exceed these recommendations. Of particular concern, added sugars during early development might have major and long-lasting effects on hormones, neural circuits, and behaviour. Dr. Huan’s project aims to develop sensitive and robust metabolomics technology to identify the key sugar products and other chemicals that play a key role in this biological process. This work allows us to understand the molecular basis between sugar intake and the long-lasting effects on adult offspring. The results will have important implications for the health of Canadians because very little is known about how a mother’s sugar intake affects the baby’s health and diseases.


Manu Madhav: Quantifying navigational impairments in preclinical Alzheimer’s disease

Project summary: Our brain contains a “cognitive map” of the external world that helps us navigate, and encode/retrieve memories. Dementias such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) degenerate these regions, causing well-known memory impairments and much less well-understood navigational impairments. Dr. Madhav’s research program seeks to quantify how navigation is impacted in early AD in rodents and humans. Young and older human participants will navigate a virtual reality maze while the research team will quantify how errors in positioning and navigating scale when the complexity of the task is increased. Similar experiments will be performed in rats navigating a physical maze, where researchers can additionally record neural activity. They will then extend the task to participants diagnosed with preclinical AD, and rodent models of AD. By characterizing the behavioural and neural correlates of early progression of AD, the goal is to find a metric that is predictive of AD-induced cognitive impairment, and its underlying neural mechanisms. Over 60,000 British Columbians currently live with dementia. A non-invasive and affordable test such as this will allow clinicians to perform early diagnosis, and start approaches that reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.


Brett Hilton: Targeting neuronal maturation to promote axon regeneration after spinal cord injury

Project summary: Spinal cord injury leads to permanent and severe paralysis and loss of sensation. The principal reason for this is that nerve cells connecting the brain with the rest of the body lose the capacity to regenerate their processes (axons) as they mature during development. Despite decades of progress, no regenerative therapy for the injured spinal cord is available today, making a regenerative treatment for spinal cord injury a major unmet need of the British Columbia healthcare system. In this project, Dr. Hilton’s team will focus on the fundamental processes through which maturation suppresses axon regeneration. They have discovered a molecular switch that is turned off in mature neurons and that we hypothesize is critical for nerve cells to regrow axons. The team will study how this molecular switch is turned off during maturation, the processes that it controls to enable growth and test whether re-activating it in mature neurons can promote regeneration and functional improvements following spinal cord injury. Collectively, this work will provide critical insight into why mature nerve cells fail to regenerate. It is anticipated that this work will be a major stepping stone towards the development of a treatment that regenerates the injured human spinal cord.