Ben-Gurion University, St. Boniface Hospital collaboration already producing some results

By Myron Love, Winnipeg Jewish Post & News


Roughly two years ago the St. Boniface Hospital entered into a collaborative agreement with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, focusing on areas of mutual interest such as cardiovascular sciences, food sciences and neurodegenerative research. On Monday, April 29, a group of supporters of Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (CABGU) Manitoba and other interested members of the community had the opportunity to hear firsthand reports on some of the early results of “Research Without Borders: Partners in Science”.

Addressing the audience at the Samuel N. Cohen Auditorium at the St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre, were Israeli researcher Dr. Idan Menashe from BGU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, and St. Boniface Hospital researchers Dr. Harold Aukema – whose area of research is nutrition and lipid mediators – and Dr. Paul Fernyhough, director of the Division of Neurodegenerative Disorders.

Dr. Fernyhough was the first to speak. He brought a message of hope for people suffering from diabetes. Fernyhough is the founder of Winsantor Inc., a private biotech company spun off from his team’s research into the discovery and development of treatments for peripheral neuropathies. “WinSanTor,” Fernyhough said, “was incorporated in 2011 to capture the transformative discoveries originally developed and patented at the University of Manitoba, the University of California at San Diego, and the University of Toronto.”

As he explained it, one of the complications from diabetes is the deadening of nerve endings in the hands and feet due to the loss of nerve fibres. The result of that diabetics experiencing that loss lose any sense of feeling in their extremities. Thus, when hands or feet are injured, the diabetic patient may be unaware which can result in infection and possibly amputation. A second effect of the loss of nerve fibres in about 50% of cases is unremitting pain, he said. Fernyhough reported that up to 50% of diabetics eventually develop neuropathy. “A few years ago,” he reported, “our researchers identified a new drug that our trials indicate can reverse nerve damage.” Oxybutynin is not exactly a new drug though. It is currently used in the form of a topical cream that can be purchased over the counter for treating overactive bladders in women.

After local researchers tested the drug in the lab and on mice – with positive results – Fernyhough reports that clinical trials on humans have been carried out at East Virginia Medical School and in Australia. A second round of clinical trials is scheduled for 60 patients in Toronto, with a third round planned for next year in Europe and China. “Our research has been supported by leading stakeholders in the field, including the Juvenile

Diabetes Research Foundation, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (at the National Institutes of Health) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, “Fernyhough notes. WinSanTor’s principals hope to bring the drug to market in three to five years. While the results of the clinical trials have been positive thus far, Fernyhough cautions that there may be some longer term potentially negative side effects. “We are continuing to do research in an effort to identify or develop alternatives to oxybutynin that are equally effective but without the side effects,” he said.

While Dr. Fernyhough was providing hope for suffering complications from diabetes, Drs. Menashe and Aukema spoke about new efforts to diagnose autism at an earlier stage and develop treatments for the condition that afflicts a growing number of children. Currently, that number is as many as 2% of children worldwide. Menashe is associated with Israel’s newly-opened National Autism Research Center at Ben-Gurion University – a joint project of the University and nearby Soroka Medical Center. “This is one of the world’s first such centers,” Menashe reported. He explained that the term autism refers to a number of different disorders which share common behaviours. “At the National Autism Research Center” he said, “we are trying to identify the different types of autism and study each one using a multidisciplinary approach.”

Other members of his research team include a child psychologist and a geneticist. The research, he noted, benefits from the presence of Soroka nearby, giving the researchers access to detailed information about children with autism whose parents bring them to the hospital. “We are focusing on biology” he explained. “We are trying to identify markers in the blood that we can associate with different sub-groups.”

That is where the researchers at the St. Boniface Hospital come into the picture. As Dr. Aukema noted, his team has the specialized equipment to test the blood and urine samples from Israeli children with autism to look for metabolites (small molecules) that may be associated with autism. “We are trying to complete a picture,” he said. “There are pieces still missing. We need a lot more information. We are trying both here and at Ben-Gurion University to acquire a better understanding of autism which will hopefully lead to new approaches to treatment.” Dr. Menashe added that one treatment that his team is testing is the use of medical cannabis to treat children with autism. “Some parents are reporting improvement,” he said. “Israel is a world leader in medical cannabis research.”