Taking aim at heart disease in women

- September 20, 2019

Dr. Keith Brunt (Associate Professor, Department of Pharmacology) is one of the principal investigators leading two ground-breaking studies on heart disease in women. (Noel Chenier photo)
Dr. Keith Brunt (Associate Professor, Department of Pharmacology) is one of the principal investigators leading two ground-breaking studies on heart disease in women. (Noel Chenier photo)

The research partnership between Dr. Keith Brunt (Dalhousie University) and Dr. Jeremy Simpson (University of Guelph) began when they met in graduate school and is still going strong nearly twelve years later along with a team that now includes cardiologists and cardiac surgeons at the New Brunswick Heart Centre and collaborators both national and international. Together, they recently secured $1.1 million in funding for two team projects focused on benefiting women with heart disease.

Their research will be funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Circulatory and Respiratory Health Institute, and Gender Health Institute with supporting funds from the Heart & Stroke Foundation New Brunswick, New Brunswick Health Research Foundation (NBHRF) and Servier Canada. Dr. Brunt and Dr. Simpson’s research seeks to shed a light on the ways in which the signs, symptoms, causes, and strategies for treating heart failure in women differs from that in men.

Confronting biases

Up until now, scientific research has focused on finding a treatment for the kind of heart failure that most often affects men (systolic) and neglected the kind that most often affects women (diastolic). In fact, according to Dr. Brunt, there are currently over fifteen different drugs to treat systolic heart failure and zero to treat diastolic heart failure. This problem is compounded by the fact that heart failure is set to become the driving cause of death among women.

“In part, this stems from all scientists – myself included – introducing bias in the way we design many of our experiments,” says Dr. Brunt, “That’s why it’s taken us so long to get here. Culturally and historically, women have been mischaracterized as being more emotionally complex and hence more physiologically complex than men. This kind of harmful thinking has persisted for decades and is the reason why animal studies rarely included females and clinical trials were not powered to be equally inclusive to female participants.“

Bridging the treatment gap

Translating research from animals to humans is essential to bridge the current treatment gap that has left women behind. In collaboration with the IMPART wave-2 research team led by Dalhousie, Dr. Brunt and Dr. Simpson have been working to establish a biobank of patients with heart failure at the New Brunswick Heart Centre where they work with physicians who know the first-hand challenges of managing diastolic heart failure without any specific targeted medications.

To create new knowledge about how female and male hearts are different and must be treated differently when failing, Dr. Brunt and Dr. Simpson plan on mapping how the cells and hormones that communicate between organs maintain the structure of the heart to develop new treatments for diastolic heart failure. After this, they will test drugs already deemed safe for humans in the animal model and explore links that might prevent the disease in the real world before it becomes a challenge clinically.

If they are successful in finding a new drug that can treat the animal model, they will be the first to discover a way to help women with diastolic heart failure.

Collaboration is key

While Dr. Brunt serves as a principal investigator on both projects, he believes that science is a team sport. As such, he is proud of the collaborations that will stretch across not only provinces, but also countries, as he and Dr. Simpson partner with colleagues in the United States and Europe. Dr. Brunt is keen to emphasize, however, that these partnerships were made possible through the trainees that they co-mentor, saying: “With outstanding trainees like Jason Huber (PhD Candidate), Leslie Ogilvie (MSc Student), and Brittany Edgett (Killam Fellow) who helped co-create and run these projects, there would be no grant or new hope on the horizon for patients.”

The inter-institutional partnership between the University of Guelph and Dalhousie University also presents a particularly exciting opportunity with Guelph’s veterinary medicine program and Dalhousie’s medical program providing a reciprocity of expertise in animal and human medical research.

In keeping with the #DalMedForward strategic plan, the impact of their findings will be heavily based in New Brunswick to meet the healthcare needs of the Maritime community where new treatment strategies to support aging and female populations are in high demand.


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