Ottawa doctor one of two in North America to receive prestigious research grant

An Ottawa doctor researching a fatal childhood disease is one of just two doctors in North America to land a new grant for their research.

Dr. Lyndsay Murray has been researching spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) at The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute for the last four years. She was just awarded the FightSMA/Gwendolyn Strong Foundation Emerging Investigator Award. The $62,500 grant, which was also awarded to Dr. Constantin d'Ydewalle of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, will pay for a year of Murray's research in Ottawa.

"It's huge," the native of Scotland said of the impact it will have on her work.

SMA, still classified as a rare disease, affects between one in 6,000 and one in 10,000 people. It's most commonly diagnosed in newborns and, in the most severe cases, the life expectancy is less than two years, often much less.

The disease, the leading genetic cause of death in infants, disrupts the activity of motor neurons, which are cells found in the spinal cord.

"They form the connection between your spinal cord to your muscles to allow you to move your muscles," Murray, 31, explained. "That's obviously very important for breathing, for moving, for the maintenance of life."

In people with SMA, the disrupted connection between those cells and the muscle causes the muscle to atrophy and die.

Murray's work focuses on why that motor neuron activity is being disrupted and why the gene mutation that causes SMA - a gene found in every cell in the human body - only seems to kill off those particular cells in the spine.

"We're definitely on the basic science aspect of it," Murray said. "We're looking at what it is that goes wrong in the first place."

The idea, she said, is figuring out what causes that motor neuron destruction so scientists can figure it out to stop it, or create treatment options, of which there are currently none.

There is hope in the field of SMA research, which is what attracted Murray to it and why she moved from the UK to Ottawa.

"There's a lot of excitement in the field right now as things do move forward," she said. "For the first time since the discovery of the (mutated) gene, there is definitely momentum."

She said the grant will hopefully help her make the difficult jump from a post-doctoral fellow to a permanent research group leader. It will also help her secure other funding in the future, she said.


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