Profiles of research

The Heart and Stroke Foundation currently funds more than 900 researchers and research teams at medical institutes, universities and hospitals across the country. Their goal: to eliminate heart disease and stroke and improve the quality of life for thousands of Canadians affected by these conditions. Here are some of their stories.

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PUT YOUR HEART INTO IT.

Making blood donor shortages a thing of the past
Dr. Ross MacGillivray

Saving brain cells after stroke
Dr. Kathryn Todd

Preventing strokes in children
Dr. Marc Del Bigio

Tracking the progress of heart disease
Dr. Peter Liu

Breaking down cholesterol
Dr. Marlys Koschinsky

Hunting down the genes for heart disease and diabetes
Dr. Robert A. Hegele

Regenerating heart cells
Dr. Jolanta Gutkowska


Making blood donor shortages a thing of the past
Dr. Ross MacGillivray

What if you urgently needed cardiac surgery, but there wasn’t enough blood available for the operation? A Canadian blood donor shortage presents an all-too-real problem today, but it might not be an issue 20 years from now, thanks to research led by Dr. Ross MacGillivray. He heads up the Centre for Blood Research in Vancouver, which has the ultimate objective of making Canada a donor-free society by 2025.

“One problem with Canada’s current blood system is a lack of donors, so here at the Centre we are investigating alternatives,” says Dr. MacGillivray. “If we could make artificial blood components, we wouldn’t need blood donors. That’s our long-term dream, though. In the meantime, we are also looking at enhancing Canada’s blood system to make it more effective.” For example, the Centre’s scientists are researching ways to improve the processing and storage of blood products to extend their shelf life, thereby decreasing the overall need for donated blood. This would be beneficial in many medical procedures, including cardiac surgery, which requires a lot of blood products.

According to Dr. MacGillivray, there is a shortage of highly qualified personnel in transfusion science. “There just aren’t enough people in Canada with the expertise to take our blood system where it needs to go,” he says. Dr. MacGillivray plans to address this gap through a new training program he and other Centre investigators established.

The program is funded jointly through a Strategic Training Program Grant from the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the CIHR Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health. Support for the grant was made possible through the Heart and Stroke Foundation Research Fund, a strategic funding initiative designed to support innovative, multi-disciplinary research programs.

Dr. MacGillivray’s innovative program will allow trainees to work with leaders in the field of transfusion science at the Centre for Blood Research, to visit front-line Canadian Blood Services collection facilities, and to spend time at other labs across Canada and the United States. “We plan to set up a nationwide network so we can send our students to study at other laboratories while students from those labs come to Vancouver,” says the researcher. Currently, the training program includes UBC researchers and others from the University of Alberta, McMaster University, Queen’s University, the University of Toronto, Hema-Quebec and the University of Washington, as well as Canadian Blood Services researchers in Vancouver, Edmonton, Hamilton and Toronto.

While the Heart and Stroke Foundation funding will support 5 to 10 students per year, the training program promises to benefit many others through a series of scientific workshops open to trainees funded through other sources. “We are looking forward to sharing knowledge with as many people as possible,” notes Dr. MacGillivray.


Saving brain cells after stroke
Dr. Kathryn Todd

Finding effective ways to promote the survival of brain cells following a stroke is the long-term goal of Dr. Kathryn Todd and her research team at the University of Alberta’s Department of Psychiatry and Centre for Neuroscience.

With funding from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Dr. Todd is studying how different types of brain cells signal one another after a stroke in the brains of adults and newborns. Her focus is on inflammatory brain cells, called microglial cells, which respond to a stroke by releasing compounds that are responsible for determining which neurons (nerve cells) live or die. Says Dr. Todd: “I am using molecular biology and gene technology in these cells in such a way that they will release survival signals to neurons that are in trouble. I doubt we’re ever going to have a single drug that protects or rescues brain cells from the effects of a stroke. Rather, we’re looking at a cocktail of strategies and interventions that when applied at different times, will improve the outcomes for patients.”

Dr. Todd adds that the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s strong linkage to the families and victims of stroke helps to keep the patient foremost in her mind while she works at the cellular level. “These are people who have taken the time to voluntarily donate their earned dollars to the Heart and Stroke Foundation and it’s often people whose family members have been affected by stroke. I feel accountable and responsible to those people, and I like that feeling.”


Preventing strokes in children
Dr. Marc Del Bigio

Dr. Marc Del Bigio has been studying the premature birth of infants and its potential association with a type of brain damage (considered a stroke) that can cause cerebral palsy or learning disabilities. It is hoped that Dr. Del Bigio’s study will help to prevent strokes in newborns and rehabilitate children who have had strokes. He recently received The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Manitoba R.E. Beamish Memorial Award for his research.

Currently a professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Manitoba, he obtained his medical degree in 1982, followed by his PhD degree in 1987 from the University of Manitoba. Following some training in neurosurgery and postdoctoral research, he did clinical training in Neuropathology at the University of Toronto. During this time, he spent one year at the Hospital for Sick Children where he came to appreciate the problems related to stroke in children.

Dr. Del Bigio accepted his first faculty appointment in Winnipeg at the University of Manitoba in 1994. Since then he has held grant funding from the Heart & Stroke Foundation, Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), and local agencies for his research programs.

Maintaining a high level of expertise in both the clinical and research arenas, he is currently on the Specialty Committee in Neuropathology for the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. He was a member of the Scientific Review Committee III for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada from 2001 to 2002.


Tracking the progress of heart disease
Dr. Peter Liu

The Heart and Stroke Foundation identified Peter Liu as a researcher to watch as far back as 1975 when he was a medical student at the University of Toronto. That year, he received the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario’s summer medical student award to spend his summers training in cardiovascular research. Says Dr. Liu: “That award turned my initial interest in immunology to cardiology.” Since then, he has made many leading-edge contributions to the study and treatment of cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Liu’s areas of research include making the link between inflammation and heart disease; tracking how the damage from a heart attack leads to heart failure; and translating findings from the lab to bedside care. Along the way, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario continued to support Dr. Liu’s work by awarding him a continuous series of grants as a principal investigator since 1985, and presenting him with the HSFO Rick Gallop Award for Research Excellence in 2003.

Dr. Liu is the Scientific Director of Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health, and the Heart and Stroke/Polo Chair Professor of Medicine and Physiology at the University of Toronto. He is the former director of the Heart & Stroke/Richard Lewar Centre of Excellence in Cardiovascular Research at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Liu received his MD degree from the University of Toronto in 1978 and completed his specialty training in internal medicine and cardiology at the University of Toronto. He went on to complete a research fellowship in cardiovascular medicine and immunology at the Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Dr. Liu is also the author or co-author of more than 250 peer reviewed publications including articles in Nature, Nature Medicine, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of Clinical Investigation, Circulation, Circulation Research, and 20 book chapters. He has served on the editorial boards of several scientific journals, and on scientific review committees of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, CIHR, National Institutes of Health, among others. He has volunteered on the Board of Directors and other committees of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario.


Breaking down cholesterol
Dr. Marlys Koschinsky

Not many people would understand what hidden clues might lie in plaque, the sticky build-up in artery walls that leads to heart disease, but Dr. Marlys Koschinsky does. As a Heart and Stroke Foundation career investigator, she has been studying certain lipoproteins – cholesterol and protein compounds in the blood – to determine how they contribute to atherosclerosis, a condition in which arteries get so plugged up with plaque that they lose their elasticity and become narrow, slowing or blocking the passage of blood. The plaque can also rupture, causing a blood clot to form. When this happens, blood flow in the artery can become severely reduced, often leading to a heart attack or stroke.

The major blood lipoproteins – cholesterol and protein compounds – in humans include HDL, the so-called good cholesterol, and LDL, the bad cholesterol. Some individuals also have high blood levels of a lipoprotein known as Lp(a) which has been dubbed the “really bad” cholesterol. As part of her ongoing studies, Dr. Koschinsky’s objective is to understand how apolipoprotein(a), the protein part of Lp(a), can play a role in heart disease. Interestingly, apolipoprotein(a) actually interferes with the ability of the body to break down blood clots, a major cause of heart attacks and stroke. Her research may lead to the development of new drugs that will reduce the risk associated with having high blood levels of Lp(a).

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario has funded Dr. Koschinsky’s research since 1992. In 2001, she became an HSFO Career Investigator. She has also served the Heart and Stroke Foundation in many capacities: as a member of the Scientific Review, Grants Allocation and Research committees, a member of the Board of Directors, and a popular speaker at regional events. To raise funds for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, she has waited tables, played hockey, cycled in Big Bike events, and swung a golf club. She holds a PhD in biochemistry from the University of British Columbia.


Hunting down the genes for heart disease and diabetes
Dr. Robert A. Hegele

What do the Alberta Hutterites, the Oji-Cree from the Sioux Lookout Zone and the Inuit from the Keewatin region have in common? They all have been study subjects of Dr. Robert A. Hegele, a Heart and Stroke Foundation career investigator, in his hunt to track down unique gene mutations that predispose these populations to heart-disease risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. Dr. Hegele studies the link between heart disease and diabetes by determining specific genes for inherited conditions, such as those that change the way the body distributes fat around the waistline. Understanding these unique mutations may yield important clues about how to better control sugar and fat metabolism in individuals predisposed to diabetes and heart disease.

His team was the first in the world to identify the gene that causes a severe inherited form of insulin resistance. Affected members of families with this gene also have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and early heart attacks. Studying these families can give us new information about arterial disease. Dr. Hegele is using sophisticated technologies to collect data about these families, a process called phenomics, to learn about the effects of their genes and uncover disease processes never seen before.

Dr. Hegele’s research has led to more than 300 publications and identified more than 100 genetic mutations linked to human disease. His research has been funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario since 1990, and he’s been a career investigator for more than 10 years.


Regenerating heart cells
Dr. Jolanta Gutkowska

You’ve had a heart attack and survived. But now that your heart’s been damaged, what lies ahead? Medications, risk of heart failure, or a transplant? Not if Dr. Jolanta Gutkowska can help it.

A simple hormone injection might reverse any damage, says Dr. Gutkowska, who is hot on the trail to a breakthrough in heart failure treatment. The Heart and Stroke Foundation researcher believes the key to regenerating heart cells may lie in a hormone that plays a major role in childbirth – oxytocin (OT).

“OT is well established as a female reproductive hormone, but we think we can use it to rebuild an injured heart,” says Dr Gutkowska. She conceived the revolutionary idea based on several findings that suggest OT is also a cardiovascular hormone. “Research has revealed that both men and women carry OT. Our team also discovered the hormone and its receptors in the heart.” Her team is planning to inject damaged cardiac tissue with OT to stimulate new heart cell generation, says Dr. Gutkowska, as well as attempt to use OT to create cardiac cells for implantation into an injured heart, with the goal of “recharging” the organ. “Using OT to restore heart function would be an exciting leap for cardiovascular research,” she adds. “We could be on the verge of completely new treatments for heart patients,” she says.

Dr. Gutkowska’s research program is funded jointly through a New Emerging Teams Grant from the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the CIHR Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health. Support for the grant was made possible through the Heart and Stroke Foundation Research Fund, a strategic funding initiative designed to support innovative, multidisciplinary research programs. The five-year study, based at the CHUM Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, is being performed by a team of five researchers with diverse expertise in physiology, anaesthesiology and other disciplines.

Last reviewed October 15, 2007.