Muscles comprise up to half of our body and, in the case of the heart, provide us with the essence of life.
“Our muscles are truly vital at every timepoint of our lives,” says Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Val Fajardo, who was announced as Brock University’s newest Canada Research Chair in Tissue Remodelling and Plasticity throughout the Lifespan on Wednesday, Dec. 16.
Fajardo studies how muscles change in form and function over the course of a lifetime.
“We’re trying to optimize muscle health and physiology to improve whole body health under conditions of aging, spaceflight, obesity, Duchenne muscular dystrophy and heart disease,” he says.
Tissue plasticity refers to long-term changes to the function and appearance of cells. This process in turn fuels muscle plasticity in which muscles modify their structures and functions in response to environmental demands.
Muscles are remodelled by favourable physiological changes arising from things like exercise and good nutrition, which enhance muscle function. With aerobic exercise training, for example, muscles will alter their metabolism allowing them to perform better and fatigue less.
Muscles are also remodelled through pathological or unfavourable changes brought about by disease, aging and physical inactivity, which can impair muscle and whole-body health.
“Understanding what causes the good changes in muscle is important, because then maybe we can tap into that when things go bad,” says Fajardo.
“Can we hack into the cellular code so that muscles adapting poorly to changes can now adapt well?” he says.
Fajardo and his team are particularly interested in a protein called calcineurin, which regulates calcium and largely drives muscle plasticity.
They are studying various proteins and interventions that can alter calcineurin signalling including other proteins such as calmodulin, the SERCA pump, and an enzyme called glycogen synthase kinase 3 or GSK3 for short.
GSK3 is particularly important as it is associated with muscle and bone deterioration. Current research in the Fajardo lab is looking at how GSK3 levels differ in muscle specimens on Earth and in outer space as a way of unlocking strategies to slow bone and muscle loss in aging humans.
“We are studying ways to block GSK3 to improve musculoskeletal health along with cardiovascular health and metabolism,” he says.
GSK3 has been implicated in several diseases and conditions. In addition to its role in muscle plasticity, Fajardo and a team of experts, including Assistant Professors of Health Sciences Rebecca MacPherson, Adam MacNeil, Terrance Wade and Deborah O’Leary and Professors of Kinesiology Brian Roy, Wendy Ward and Panagiota (Nota) Klentrou are studying the role of GSK3 in cognitive health, obesity and diabetes, immune cell function, and mediating the effects of regular exercise.
“What if stopping GSK3 can mimic and amplify some of the beneficial effects of exercise not only in muscle but across several other organs in the body?” says Fajardo.
Exercise is crucial to mitigating diseases and other debilitating medical conditions. Fajardo says studying the cellular mechanisms that occur during exercise can lead to the development of medicines that could perhaps help those unable to exercise.
Fajardo says he feels “honoured” and “extremely lucky” to be named a Canada Research Chair.
“I am here in large part because of the training I received from Brock University,” he says.
Fajardo completed his undergraduate degree in 2009 and master’s degree in 2012 at Brock under the supervision of Professor of Health Sciences, Paul LeBlanc before completing his PhD at the University of Waterloo.
“This CRC recognizes Dr. Fajardo’s breakthrough work, strong productivity and research output in the field of muscle physiology, particularly in the cellular-level repair and remodelling of skeletal and cardiac muscles,” says Brock Vice-President, Research Tim Kenyon. “His work has tremendous implications for the health of all Canadians, particularly those living with diseases, chronic conditions and injuries, and the elderly.”
The Canada Research Chairs Program invests up to $295 million per year to attract and retain some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds. Chairholders aim to achieve research excellence in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities, and social sciences.
Including Fajardo, Brock University currently has eight Canada Research Chairs, with more expected to be announced in 2021.