Hope for the Heart

Contributing to a global pool of vital research

Dr. Hope Anderson’s father didn’t tell her specifically which career path to take, but he gave her a very strong – albeit unintentional – suggestion.

“In my fourth year of undergraduate, I was nearing my last round of final exams. I received a call from Regina telling me that my father had two myocardial infarctions (heart attacks). It was serious, I was here in Manitoba, they were in Saskatchewan,” recalls Dr. Anderson, Principal Investigator, Vascular Biology, Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine (CCARM) at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre. “He survived, but we were told that if he didn’t receive a heart transplant within two years, his prognosis was very poor. I’ll just cut to the chase, he’s still alive today.”

It was a pivotal time for Dr. Anderson. Not only were University of Manitoba exams just around the corner, but she was also trying to figure what to do with her science degree.

I believe in research and I believe that without research, I would’ve lost my father years ago.”

“There were multiple fields I could enter, but cardiovascular research appealed to me at that time for obvious reasons,” she says.


A miraculous recovery

Her father didn’t receive a transplant right away, and recovered from the heart attacks despite the fact he was living with heart failure. A number of years later, Dr. Anderson was training in San Francisco and got another phone call. This time, her parents were living in Kelowna. The nurse who called urged her to come quickly to say goodbye to her father. He had just experienced a cardiac arrest and the prognosis was poor.

Again, against all odds, her father survived. Dr. Anderson remembers seeing the attending physician’s scribbled note on her father’s chart: “Miraculous recovery.”

That was in 2001. She got married that year and danced with her father at her wedding.

By 2007, it was clear that the heart transplant could no longer wait. The complex procedure was a success and “he’s still going strong.”

“I believe in research and I believe that without research, I would’ve lost my father years ago,” says Dr. Anderson. “He’s met all of his grandchildren. It’s been wonderful! So I’m committed to continuing in this area.”

Dr. Anderson’s research is focused on cardiovascular disease. What are some of the things that cause it? What are some of the things that can be done to prevent it or slow its progression?

Hypertrophy

“One area that we specifically focus on is this concept of cardiac hypertrophy,” explains Dr. Anderson. “When your heart is stressed, it responds to stress or injury by growing – hypertrophy. This can be normal, say in response to exercise, or it can be abnormal, in response to stressors such as high blood pressure or a heart attack.”

Dr. Anderson and her colleagues are trying to identify novel ways of blocking the growth of the heart – the hypertrophy – when it occurs in response to stressors. This, Dr. Anderson believes, could reduce the incidence of heart failure.

As a key element of the work, Dr. Anderson’s lab is looking at the potential impact of dietary interventions (fortified foods) and nutraceuticals (supplements made from food) with the ability to treat or prevent disease.

“Right now we’re focusing on resveratrol and compounds like resveratrol, and their effects on the heart and on blood vessels in hypertension and heart disease,” she says. “That is a significant focus in the laboratory right now.”

Resveratrol is a compound found in the skin of dark grapes and many berries and has been recognized for its anti-oxidant properties.

“Testing the waters”

And while she believes in the potential of nutraceuticals today, it was a term she wasn’t even familiar with just over a decade ago. One evening in San Francisco, while her fellow students went to a Giants baseball game, she looked online and discovered a job posting at CCARM in Winnipeg.

“My training was as a biomedical researcher, but the posting was for a biomedical researcher who might be interested in pursuing research in nutraceuticals and functional foods,” she recalls. She put out a “feeler” e-mail to Dr. Grant Pierce, Chair of the Selection Committee, now Executive Director of Research at St. Boniface Hospital.

Pretty gutsy of Dr. Anderson, considering she had no idea what a nutraceutical was at the time. She had to look it up before sending her e-mail.

Within minutes of receiving the e-mail, Dr. Pierce phoned her, intrigued by her qualifications. He reminded her that the application was due in two days, and had to include a five-year research plan. To make a longer story short, she pulled it off, got hired, moved back to Winnipeg, and remains committed to advancing her cardiovascular research through a nutraceutical lens.

While proud of the work she and her colleagues are doing at CCARM, Dr. Anderson realizes that progress can’t happen in a vacuum. Research from all over the world needs to be sewn together to form a complete tapestry of success.

“I believe in the concept of contributing to a pool of knowledge,” said Dr. Anderson. “I think it’s important. We might not understand yet what we can do with this pool of knowledge, but we have to keep fostering its growth before we can truly understand how different pieces of the puzzle might fit together in new ways.”

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