When asked about the status of his research into a device that regulates blood pressure in spinal cord injury patients, Dr. Aaron Phillips offers an understated “It’s progressing.” But as the University of Calgary professor notes, the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently awarded him and a collaborative team a $32-million grant because they consider his technology a potential breakthrough designation, so it’s clear that “progressing” is underselling this achievement.

“It’s happened really rapidly,” Dr. Phillips admits. “Earlier in my career than I probably expected.”

Scientists don’t often get to say that in Canada. Funding for the sciences exists, but it’s not that easy to come by, especially for those just starting out. That’s why Dr. Phillips believes Brain Canada’s Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research Program is a vital resource for funding, and why he’s honoured to have been a recipient back in 2019.

The funding conundrum

What makes the program unique is that it’s designed specifically for early-career researchers, who are often up against much more experienced scientists when they apply to other funding programs. As a result of the limited resources available in Canada, granting bodies are less willing to take chances on unproven research proposals from applicants who are relatively new to the field.

Aaron Phillips Portrait
Dr. Aaron Phillips

“Canada has a catch-22 funding model where researchers can’t get funding without research data, but also can’t provide research data without funding,” explains Viviane Poupon, President and CEO of Brain Canada.

The Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research Program provides seed funding, except for a research startup rather than a tech one. On September 2 of this year, it awarded twenty grants of $100,000 to projects in new lines of brain research that have the potential to significantly impact our understanding of the brain. And rather than opening the program to all Canadian researchers, Brain Canada restricts applications to those who have started their first independent research position within the last five years.

“This can really give us a leg up, almost a head start when we’re launching our early careers,” Dr. Phillips notes. “Because we’re competing against our own cohort—other junior investigators.”

Undiscovered country

The brain is really the last great frontier in human health. There are so many aspects of brain function that scientists still don’t understand. And yet, according to a NeuroScience Canada report, one in three Canadians are affected by a brain disease, disorder, or injury at some point in their life. In addition, brain disorders are the most impactful cause of disability in Canada.

“Since the Future Leaders Program was established in 2019, forty Canadian early-career investigators have had the opportunity to pursue innovative ideas in basic, translational, and clinical brain research.”

“The brain remains the black box of scientific research,” notes Dr. Naomi Azrieli, the Chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation, a major funding partner for Brain Canada’s Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research Program. “Neurodevelopmental disorders, which is the area that we have focused on funding, affect people for their entire lifespan and involve family members and caregivers.”

Since the Future Leaders Program was established in 2019, forty Canadian early-career investigators have had the opportunity to pursue innovative ideas in basic, translational, and clinical brain research. The areas of study include mental health, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and dementia, pediatric brain cancer, spinal cord injury, neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, and so much more.

Dreaming big

In the case of Dr. Phillips, Brain Canada’s funding supported research to understand the neural circuits that cause blood pressure dysregulation in spinal cord injury patients, as well as test a therapy he invented to treat it. Blood pressure stability may seem relatively unimportant to the average person, but because of the nature of a spinal cord injury, the neurons that would normally regulate blood pressure can’t communicate with the vascular system. The result is a massive increase in strokes and heart attacks.

The therapy that Dr. Phillips invented is a device that’s in some ways like a pacemaker for the spinal cord. “It helps reawaken neurons in the spinal cord and improve function,” he explains. His lab has partnered with several companies, including ONWARD, to develop the technology and will soon be implementing clinical trials with a collaborative team that spans Canada, the U.S., and Europe.

It’s a success story that exemplifies why the Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research Program exists. It also demonstrates how innovative and impactful Canadian scientists can be when they’re given the resources.

“As a nation, we punch well above our weight in the global brain research landscape,” Dr. Azrieli, who is also the Chair of the Brain Canada Foundation, notes. “Brain Canada plays an invaluable, critical role in that success.”

Imagine all the potential breakthroughs in brain research currently spinning around in the minds of scientists who are in the early part of their careers. Junior investigators need the resources to fulfill their potential. Brain Canada and its supporters can help duplicate Dr. Phillips’s success—with your help.

“We know that Canada’s next generation of brain researchers has enormous potential,” says Poupon. “They’re starting their careers just as science and technology are beginning to unlock the secrets of the brain. Now is their moment to dream big.”

These Canadian scientists will inspire you

The 2020 cohort of Brain Canada’s Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research Program is filled with whip-smart early-career scientists brimming with innovative ideas. Each of the twenty recipients received $100,000 in seed funding to research a high-potential project or idea that could significantly impact our fundamental understanding of the brain. To learn more about how you can get involved visit www.braincanada.ca/donate.

Glynis Ratclife
Glynis Ratcliffe has written for Chatelaine and the Washington Post. She is working on a documentary about her grandfather’s experiences during the Second World War.