The Heart of a Legend
Connecting experts and pursuing excellence
“I contributed quite a bit to academic medicine. I was trying to find out how the heart fails under a wide variety of diseases.”
“People are the best infrastructure,” says 80-year-old cardiac research legend, Dr. Naranjan Dhalla.
That being the case, you could consider Dr. Dhalla to be an accomplished architect. Not only has he built a remarkable cardiac research infrastructure at St. Boniface Hospital, he has also developed vast and influential international networks designed to share ideas and advance research around the world.
When Dr. Dhalla was recruited to Winnipeg from St. Louis in the 1960s, he accepted the University of Manitoba’s offer on the condition that he could also bring eight people he worked with in his lab. He wanted the work done in Winnipeg to be of the highest caliber, and he was their loyal leader. After some hesitation about the cost, the university said yes and seven of eight colleagues followed Dr. Dhalla to Winnipeg.
From the earliest days of his career, Dr. Dhalla has believed in the importance of caring for the people who worked for him and giving them room to excel.
“I consider that is absolutely important for an administrator of any given unit to be very close to their own people. They should care,” says Dr. Dhalla. “It’s just like raising a plant. You sow a seed and when you sow a seed, the plant has to be given tender love. Similarly, when you bring young investigators here, you have to nurture them. You have to make them feel that it is they who are the magic people rather than you. You have to deal with their idiosyncrasies and all that in a very nice, beautiful fashion. And that I call love.”
Dr. Dhalla’s leadership style in the lab, along with his rich and deep expertise, has led to the generation of important new knowledge in cardiac research in three primary areas: cardiac hypertrophy and congestive heart failure; ischemia-reperfusion injury; and heart dysfunction in diabetes.
Cardiac hypertrophy is a thickening of the heart muscle that causes the heart chamber to shrink. This condition leads to congestive heart failure (CHF). Dr. Dhalla has a particular hypothesis, as to how CHF develops, related to the remodelling of “subcellular organelles.” By uncovering the precise nature how CHF develops, Dr. Dhalla and his colleagues are confident that more targeted and effective medicines can produced.
In the area of ischemia-reperfusion injury, Dr. Dhalla is trying to determine whether certain drugs can prevent the tissue damage caused when blood flow is restored following the resolution of arterial blockages. He has discovered that calcium overload, oxidative stress, and protease activation are major mechanisms of ischemic heart disease.
In understanding the relationship between diabetes and cardiac health, Dr. Dhalla has identified a new mechanism for how calcium enters cardiac cells. This is important because the regulation of calcium in the body is integral to heart health. As a result of his work, he has discovered two new interventions to reduce some of the worst cardiac events associated with chronic diabetes. He was a pioneer in even connecting the study of diabetes and heart dysfunction. He ignored the naysayers and proved that that heart muscle weakens over time in people with diabetes and that 80 percent of diabetics die of cardiovascular problems. There was a time when Dr. Dhalla’s lab was one of only three in the world looking at this connection.
“I contributed quite a bit to academic medicine. I was trying to find out how the heart fails under a wide variety of diseases,” says Dr. Dhalla. “I tried many experimental models of heart disease. In fact, we were the first in the world to find out that the membranes go bad and that’s why there’s a calcium handling abnormality. That’s why there’s a heart failure. I think I was one of first two people in the world who demonstrated that calcium handling abnormalities take place in the failing heart.”
Dr. Dhalla is eager to solve the mysteries of CHF and heart disease – the world’s number one cause of death. CHF leads to the build-up of fluids in the body and causes fatigue, swelling, and weakness. At its worst, heart failure can lead to sudden cardiac death, which differs from a heart attack. Even elite athletes can die suddenly. It was believed that when this happened, the body released an excess of stress hormones called catecholamines, but Dr. Dhalla has demonstrated that the matter is more nuanced than that. “I believe that catecholamines are not bad as long as these stay as catecholamines. The problem is that when these are in excess, these hormones don’t stay as catecholamines but become oxidized,” says Dr. Dhalla – and that’s what causes the problem.
For that reason, Dr. Dhalla encourages the consumption of anti-oxidants. While anti-oxidants cannot reverse or cure heart disease, they “are very good in preventing the progression of the disease,” says Dr. Dhalla.
While Dr. Dhalla remains excited about what happens in the lab, he is especially proud of his role in bringing the international cardiac research community together to move the science forward through dialogue and cooperation.
He served as Secretary General of the International Society for Heart Research for 17 years and as President for three. In total, he was active with the society for 26 years. “This organization was very successful in promoting cardiovascular research all over the world,” says Dr. Dhalla. “It became one of the most respected organizations in this field.” Dr. Dhalla was instrumental in bringing the society’s major cardiology conference to Winnipeg in 2001. It attracted 2,000 attendees eager to advance knowledge, promote research, and develop partnerships.
In 1996, Dr. Dhalla became Executive Director of the new International Academy of Cardiovascular Sciences. The Academy is headquartered in Winnipeg with several sections all over the world; Dr. Dhalla remains the Executive Director. The organization began as a young investigators forum and evolved into an influential body of 250 fellows – the world’s leading cardiovascular researchers, including six Nobel Laureates. The Academy also acknowledges achievements of both young and established investigators through a number of awards.
Dr. Dhalla’s career has been about excellence, education, relationships, and passion. He has always sought to raise the bar in his own cardiac research, and he has inspired young researchers – in Winnipeg and around the world – to make progress in the battle against heart disease.
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