May 11, 2015

Owerko Centre provides new home for neurodevelopmental research

Multi-faculty health facility dedicated to study of childhood brain development, disorders and mental health
Marge and Stan Owerko, Calgary philanthropists, a portion of whose $10-million gift to the Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation was dedicated to the creation of the Owerko Centre at the university's Child Development Centre.

Marge and Stan Owerko, Calgary philanthropists.

Adrian Shellard

A new research space at the University of Calgary officially opened on May 6, dedicated to studying neurodevelopment and child mental health including disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) and autism spectrum. The Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute will be home to researchers, clinician scientists and staff collaborating to better understand, diagnose and treat these conditions. 

This achievement was made possible thanks to a $10-million gift from Calgary philanthropists Stan and Marge Owerko to the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation in November 2014, a portion of which was dedicated to the creation of the research space based at the university’s Child Development Centre.  

Tremendous opportunity to come together like never before

“We have a tremendous opportunity in the Owerko Centre to come together in ways that were not possible before,” says Nicole Letourneau, one of the lead investigators at the centre, and a University of Calgary professor in the Faculty of Nursing, a research professor at the Cumming School of Medicine, and the Norlien/Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health. “In this outstanding facility we have the technology and space to work with families and children on research designed to prevent and treat neurodevelopmental problems.” 

Neurodevelopmental disorders represent one of the fastest growing health problems in the world, with nearly 20 per cent of school children suffering from one or more diagnosable conditions. The cost of neurodevelopmental disorders is immense. Treatment is complex and individualized as children experience medical, physical, emotional, learning, behavioural, and social difficulties that vary drastically between disorders, and also vary between children with the same diagnosis. In addition, children often experience anxiety and depression due to the complex challenges they face and treatment typically requires support from the whole family and community. 

Conditions often affect individuals well into adulthood. Surveys of adults with mental health issues reveal that the majority experienced neurodevelopmental disorders in childhood. 

“We know that brain-related illness can be devastating for families,” says Stan Owerko, president and chief executive officer of Petrogas Energy Corp. “We want to ensure that brilliant scientists have the resources they need to increase knowledge about the brain and develop new treatments to help children in our community and around the world.”

President Elizabeth Cannon addresses guests at the opening of the Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

President Elizabeth Cannon addresses guests at the opening of the Owerko Centre.

New Centre supports multi-faculty research

Based in a 930-square-meter facility, the Owerko Centre will support researchers and their staff from multiple faculties across the University of Calgary. The space also includes special testing spaces, playrooms with observation suites, labs for the preparation and collection of biological samples and a motor skills examination area. 

Study of neurodevelopmental disorders falls within the University of Calgary’s Brain and Mental Health strategic research theme, led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, one of the six themes guiding the university toward its Eyes High goals.

“Calgary is already home to international expertise in Brain and Mental Health, and we’ll be able to build upon this knowledge and develop even deeper capacity at this state-of-the-art facility,” says Elizabeth Cannon, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary. “On behalf of all the partners in this collaboration, I offer our sincere appreciation to Stan and Marge Owerko.”

Building on past support from the Owerko family, the Owerko Centre is now home to research collaborations that will improve the health of children and their families. Examples of work between principal investigators include:

  • Nicole Letourneau, whose research focuses on parenting — both its effects and how it can be improved. Letourneau’s ongoing research includes postpartum depression, the effects of violence in families, and the relationships between parents and their children as it relates to neurological development.
  • Gerry Giesbrecht, assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Calgary, who is examining the influence of fetal environments. It has been found that stress and depression experienced during pregnancy can affect children’s development; ongoing work will study these influences
  • Suzanne Tough and Bonnie Kaplan, both professors in the departments of paediatrics and community health sciences, whose work together is examining more than 5,000 families as part of an initiative known as the Alberta Births Common Dataset (ABCD). Following families from pregnancy until their children are eight years old, researchers have amassed an incredible amount of data that will allow them to focus on rare events such as autism spectrum disorder, and what predicts ADHD.
  • Deborah Dewey, professor in the departments of paediatrics and community health sciences, and an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, is working to understand the effects of exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment on children’s neurological development.
  • Catherine Lebel, an assistant professor in the Department of Radiology, who is working with another colleague from the Owerko Centre, to conduct magnetic resonance imaging of children to study normal and abnormal brain development.
  • Additionally, Frank MacMaster, assistant professor in the departments of psychiatry and paediatrics, and the Cuthbertson and Fischer Chair in Paediatric Mental Health, is imaging children’s brains and examining brain function and structure when they are affected by neurodevelopmental disorders.

Creating a home for researchers to work together

“We are pleased to be able to help create a new 'home' where researchers can work alongside one another, build off each other’s energy and ideas, and ultimately accomplish more together than could be done alone,” says Marge Owerko.

In addition to their recent contributions to brain health, the Owerkos give back to the community beyond Calgary. Their support has resulted in a church built in Ukraine, where the couple has family roots. Each Christmas season the family sends a container of gifts and clothing to the church.

“We are immensely proud that the Owerko family is our partner in this far-reaching and forward-looking collaboration to improve the health and well-being of children and families living with neurodevelopmental conditions,” says President Cannon.