Research imitates life

You never know where you’re going to end up

As a youngster growing up in southern Ontario, Grant Pierce was a sports fanatic ­­– a Montreal Canadiens fan proudly wearing Jean Béliveau’s #4 jersey. By the time he reached Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, basketball became his game as he played on one of Canada’s top intercollegiate teams. A career in coaching hoops or teaching seemed inevitable, but creative writing called to Grant Pierce, too. So did chiropractic. Ultimately, as an undergrad at Lakehead, it was the call of research that was most persuasive.

“They know Winnipeg because of St. Boniface Hospital Research. Why? Because the donors have created it.”

“I was pretty convinced I wanted to go into research because at that time it was interesting to me why some people were good athletes and some people were not good athletes and there had to be a physiological basis to that,” says Dr. Pierce, Executive Director of Research, St. Boniface Hospital, and Professor of Physiology and Pharmacy at the University of Manitoba. “There had to be a physiological basis to why people got tired faster than others and what was that reason? So why did that occur?”

So, he pursued a Master’s degree with a focus on exercise physiology, which led to a curiosity about disease and how the body functions. Fast-forward over 30 years and today Dr. Pierce leads a team of 40 Principal Investigators at St. Boniface Hospital Research. He’s got about 200 peer-reviewed journal articles to his name and has been cited by others roughly 4,000 times. He’s an internationally recognized research leader. All this, from the Welland, Ontario-born Habs fan who hated the chemistry set he once got for Christmas.

The journey

Dr. Pierce’s career path is not unlike research itself. You start in one place, and you end up somewhere else. The journey matters.

For example, take the story of St. Boniface Hospital Research’s work on chlamydia pneumonia, a lung infection. Dr. Pierce and his colleagues set out to understand the relationship between heart disease and infections like chlamydia pneumonia.

“The components of chlamydia pneumonia are actually found in the plaques that are found in your arteries that cause heart attacks. Why would a lung disease actually be found in these blockages in your coronary arteries of your heart that would ultimately cause heart attacks? We were interested in that conundrum and have been investigating it for several years now,” says Dr. Pierce. “We’ve looked at how chlamydia pneumonia actually causes cell proliferation. That means one cell turning into two, into four, into eight and that is a critical component, of course, of the blockages in your artery and how they grow.”

Chlamydia pneumonia

In the process and as a sideline, Pierce and his colleagues have started to look at chlamydia pneumonia itself, independent of its relationship to heart disease. Simply put, they’re trying to figure out how to kill chlamydia pneumonia. “Right now, if you have chlamydia pneumonia, it’s in your body. It doesn’t get out, it stays in there,” explains Dr. Pierce. “It may be dormant, but it stays in there, it can continue to grow at some time in the future. So we have no way really of getting rid of it.”

Dr. Pierce and his team started solving the chlamydia pneumonia puzzle through their cardiac research. Now they are trying to neutralize the infection itself. The journey matters.

Aside from his management and teaching roles, Dr. Pierce is actively involved as a Principal Investigator himself in four major studies. His highest profile work right now is focused on the positive impacts of flax seed on cardiovascular health. It’s known that the omega-3 fatty acid found in many fish is beneficial for the cardiovascular system. Flax seed, grown in abundance on the Prairies, is also rich with omega-3 fatty acid. Dr. Pierce and company are studying the flax version of the fatty acid to see how it compares with the fatty acid found in fish. The results are very promising.

The St-Boniface Legacy

Dr. Pierce’s pride in his work and in St. Boniface Hospital runs deep. He’s especially proud of the hospital’s international research relationships and its sterling reputation. And he credits donors to St-Boniface Hospital Foundation.

“You name the country ­– Japan, Argentina, Czech Republic, Germany, France, Cuba, the United States – that scientific community knows Winnipeg,” says Dr. Pierce. “They have visited Winnipeg and have stayed in our hotels and have met our families and have chatted with us and eaten dinner with us and everything. They know Winnipeg because of St. Boniface Hospital Research. Why? Because the donors have created it.”

Indeed, donors lay the groundwork for successful medical research. And it’s committed, hard-working scientists like Dr. Pierce and his global partners who advance our understanding of human health.

For Dr. Pierce and his colleagues, the process of research never stops. You keep moving, you keep learning, you keep discovering, and you never know where you are going to end up.

Like the sign on Dr. Pierce’s door says: “You have the rest of your life to remember, but what you have to remember depends on what you do today.”

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