Matters of the Heart

Advancing science and inspiring local youth

As a researcher and the Director of the Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences at St. Boniface Hospital’s Albrechtsen Research Centre, Dr. Pawan Singal has been on the front lines of the international battle against heart disease since the 1970s.

His CV includes more than 250 published papers and 30 co-edited books, and he’s been cited by countless other researchers around the world. He’s been credited with opening up the study of free radicals and oxidative stress.

Many patients who survive a heart attack will subsequently go into heart failure. Why? Dr. Singal discovered that when the handling of oxygen within a cell is impaired in any way (as happens after a heart attack), free radicals are created. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules – a toxic species that can damage a body. The hypothesis, therefore, is that heart failure can be brought about by these free radicals. It is a critical discovery.

“This immediately tells us that some patients respond nicely to a drug. Some others, to the same drug, in the same disease, respond differently.”

“We did very primitive early experiments. We developed more knowledge, more sophistication, more knowledge, more sophistication, and now, literally 50% of the laboratories across the world are invoking the role of oxidative stress in whatever they’re studying,” says Dr. Singal. “Not only in the heart but in other systems, also. That’s kind of heartwarming to see that.”

Beyond that foundational understanding of oxidative stress, Dr. Singal was at the forefront of studying the impact of doxorubicin – a cancer-fighting drug – on the heart. While the drug has long been successful in treating cancer, Dr. Singal and colleagues discovered many years ago that doxorubicin can cause heart failure.

As cancer progresses, says Dr. Singal, the tendency is to increase the dosage. “There’s a trade-off,” he says about the use of doxorubicin. “You must stop at a certain point in time because there is nothing to be gained. You’re killing the patient by heart failure.”

The landmark work on doxorubicin has influenced cancer treatment and it paved the way for Dr. Singal’s current research with St. Boniface Hospital colleague Dr. Davinder Jassal on the side-effects of newer cancer-fighting drugs.

Another important discovery reported by Dr. Singal and his colleagues in 2012 focused on how a certain chemical in the body (interleukin 10) that typically protects cells from dying, could actually cause cell death under certain conditions created by the body’s “innate signalling” response.

“This immediately tells us that some patients respond nicely to a drug. Some others, to the same drug, in the same disease, respond differently. That’s what happens,” he explains. “There are selective steps. If they are not in sync with the system, you’ll get a different reaction, a different response.”

The work, he notes, could also advance our knowledge of heart failure even further. “It has tremendous potential.”

Outside of the lab, the office, and the halls of academe, Dr. Singal has one more very important passion related to his work – inspiring the next generation of science leaders.

In December 2015, Dr. Singal brought Nobel Laureate Dr. Peter Agre to Winnipeg to receive the Robert Beamish Leadership award as part of the 17th annual Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences Awards. While in Winnipeg, Dr. Agre, who won the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry, met with a large forum of Winnipeg high-school students to talk about his work and his accomplishments. Dr. Agre was the third Nobel Laureate that Dr. Singal has brought to Winnipeg.

Dr. Singal has also developed a deep relationship with the Dakota Ojibway Tribal Council (DOTC) and has included students from DOTC’s First Nations communities in his programs with Nobel Laureates. He has visited DOTC community members twice in Portage la Prairie and he has welcomed DOTC students into his lab. The Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences has also developed an educational tool for First Nations students to inspire them to advance their studies and consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Whether lecturing university students or greeting high school students, he encourages young learners to stick with it. “Be resilient, be creative, and remain enthusiastic.”

“In science, my message is that there are tremendous opportunities to create new knowledge,” he adds. “We think we know a lot, but when you really scratch the surface we are at the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole new knowledge underneath.”

As he moves forward with his ground-breaking research, his award-winning teaching, and his desire to inspire the next generation, Dr. Singal is grateful for the international collaborations and local relationships that are so important to his work. He is also very fond of life in Manitoba. When Maclean’s Magazine published an article in January 2015 suggesting that Winnipeg was Canada’s most racist city, Dr. Singal was unimpressed.

“I wrote them a letter,” says Dr. Singal, who once organized an interfaith workshop on science and spirituality. “From where I see it we are open and accessible. I don’t see this racism that they’re talking about.”

What Dr. Singal does see is a sense of community and a sense of generosity. And he is very grateful St. Boniface Hospital Foundation and its donors for the support they provide to medical research: “We could not have developed to this point without the input from the Foundation,” he says.

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