Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Understanding lipids and cellular health

Dr. Amir Ravandi dreams of a day when every heart cell is given a chance to survive during a heart attack.

The ideal scenario would look like this, according to Dr. Ravandi, Principal Investigator Cardiovascular Lipidomics, Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences: “Somebody comes in with a heart attack, after I have opened the artery with a stent, I’d get the drug that we came up with, inject it into the heart arteries, and say: ‘You know what? We’re protecting your heart cells.’ That would be the ultimate objective and that would allow the heart muscle to survive.

Thanks to the work of Dr. Ravandi and his colleagues, that dream is coming close to reality.

A new way to look at lipids

Dr. Ravandi’s primary focus is on what happens to lipids during a heart attack. Lipids, Dr. Ravandi explains, are fat molecules that form the wall of every cell in the human body.

“Lipids represent about 70% of our total blood volume. They are integral,” he says.

For the longest time it was assumed that the lipids were simply physical building blocks in our cells. Thanks to new technology developed over the past 15 years, scientists can now look at the lipids more closely during disease processes and acute events, like heart attacks. “The lipids can cause damage,” says Dr. Ravandi. “They can make cells behave differently.”

The ability to analyze lipid behaviour during diseases is one of the factors that enticed Dr. Ravandi to leave a leading institute in San Diego and set up shop at St. Boniface Hospital. The machine that does the heavy lifting is called a mass spectrometer, a $350,000 piece of equipment funded by St-Boniface Hospital Foundation.

“No need for transplants down the line or any further medications – the heart is safe. That will be the goal.”

The beast

The mass spectrometer, playfully dubbed “the beast” by the researchers, can identify, quantify, and track the lipids so that Dr. Ravandi can reach informed conclusions about damage to heart cells and the heart’s muscles.

The lab work is now starting to connect directly with St-Boniface Hospital’s patients.

“Our new phase of research is actually taking a look at patients who come in with heart attacks,” says Dr. Ravandi. “We’ve actually looked at their blood plasma and found that these particular molecules that we’re very interested in go up by 10-20-fold during a heart attack. We would not have been able to show that without the mass spectrometer. Again, we’re not just doing animal research or working on a tissue culture, but actually on humans. This is a real process that occurs every time somebody is having a heart attack.”

A combination for success

The opportunity to be in an environment where he could work simultaneously in the research lab and treat patients was another factor that attracted Dr. Ravandi to St. Boniface Hospital. The Hospital sees about 55,000 patients a year with heart-related issues, and houses one of Canada’s busiest cath labs with close to 6000 angiograms performed yearly. (a cath lab – that’s short for catheterization lab – is an examination room equipped to look at the heart arteries and to open then up with balloons and stents).

“Winnipeg offered the combination of allowing me to practice cardiology which I love to do while being able to do the kind of basic research that I wanted to do. That’s why I came to Winnipeg,” says Dr. Ravandi of the structure of St. Boniface Hospital. “Our questions are right across the street from us. I can easily go back and forth, to be able to ask the question within the hospital and hopefully answer it within the Research Centre. As a clinical scientist, that is absolutely key, to be able to be close to the place (where) the patients come in in dire need -hopefully we can help them- but if there are questions, there are basic research science labs that we can delve into that problem and understand what’s going on. For me, that is absolutely very key.”

For now, the research proceeds. Dr. Ravandi and his colleagues are optimistic that their current examination of lipids and cellular behaviour will result in the application of a reliable antibody that will limit the number of cells killed during a heart attack and preserve the heart muscle to the extent possible.

“Our goal is to preserve as much heart muscle as possible and…add another layer of protection for the patient coming in with a heart attack,” he says.

To learn more about Dr. Ravandi’s research visit:

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