Dalhousie creating tissue bank for innovative research on heart disease

By Victoria Walton

This year's Molly Appeal is fundraising to create a 'bio-bank' at Dalhousie Medical School in New Brunswick.

The appeal is named after Molly Moore, who donated five dollars to Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) in the 1980's.

Molly appealed to the public to donate, saying if everyone donated just five dollars, they would collectively make a huge difference.

Now, decades later, the Molly Appeal selects a different area of focus each year, and the initiative has raised over $5 million dollars.

This year, leading researchers in cardiovascular health are raising funds to build a bio-bank.

“A bio-bank is essentially a collection of minus 80 degree Celsius freezers that will allow us to collect tissues from patients across the Maritimes,” says Dr. Sarah Wells, a cardiovascular researcher at Dalhousie's Medical School.

“Any patients going in for a cardiac procedure having tissue — say heart valves — removed, rather than discarding those valves, we'll freeze them,” she tells NEWS 95.7's The Sheldon MacLeod Show.

The researchers would then collect blood samples and a patient's medical history, to try to determine what made them more susceptible to heart disease.

Women's heart research second to men's

Doctor Wells is particularly focused on one area of cardiovascular research that doesn't get much attention — pregnancy.

“Pregnancy may be a factor at play in determining risk for heart failure and other cardiovascular diseases later in life,” she explains. “In cardiovascular research, in medical research in general, women have always been underrepresented.”

Wells explains how the cardiovascular system expands during pregnancy, with the heart pumping 50 per cent more blood than normal.

“It's called a volume overload,” she says. “In the first trimester, the heart and cardiovascular tissues have to undergo a tremendous and rapid bio-mechanical adaptation to this increase in blood volume.”

And, Wells says, the changes to the heart during pregnancy look a lot like heart failure.

“A patient in heart failure has a similar volume overload of the heart tissue,” she says. “[But] they don't undergo this amazing, adaptive response that we see in pregnancy.”

Wells hopes to find a correlation between the adaptations during pregnancy and the lack of adaptations in heart disease.

“What can we learn about the heart's adaptation in pregnancy? Can we extend that to understanding and potentially treating heart failure?” she says.

But the researcher also thinks there could be a tie between pregnancy and heart disease later in life, especially in women who've had multiple pregnancies.

“While the short-term adaptations are beneficial in pregnancy, repeated pregnancies in particular may increase your risk for cardiovascular diseases such as heart failure later in life,” says Wells.

Again, the problem is that the researchers have very little data on women's health.

“Very few researchers have looked at this in the past,” says Wells. “We have no data on this at all.”


'Quite a shock' it happened to me

Nora Doran has first hand experience with cardiovascular illness.

“My life changed fairly drastically about a year ago this past Friday, when I sustained a cardiac arrest playing basketball,” she tells NEWS 95'7 The Sheldon MacLeod Show.

But Doran was healthy — at age 40 she was a lifelong athlete in both rugby and basketball.

“I''ve always had a sport, at least one if not two on the go in my life,” says Doran. “So this certainly all came as quite a shock.”

Doran says she doesn't remember much about the cardiac arrest. She was courtside at the Canada Games Centre when she collapsed.

“When I fell I dislocated my ulna at the wrist,” she says. “My heart went into an arrhythmia, it went into a weird rhythm, and then it stopped.”

The mother of two says she's lucky her teammates jumped into action, performing CPR, using an AED and calling paramedics, who arrived on the scene in just 10 minutes.

“I am so fortunate that it was observed and someone acted,” says Doran.

But she still doesn't know why her heart attack happened.

“When others hear it, they're taken back, given my history with sports and athletics, and health and fitness,” she says. “That something like this could happen to someone like me.”

Now, Doran is telling her story publicly in the hopes to raise awareness, and funds.

“Probably about nine months ago I wouldn't have been able to talk about this without crying,” she says. “But hopefully by sharing my story others may wish to contribute to such a great cause.”

Doran has donated her own tissue to the Dalhousie Medical School's bio-bank.

And Doctor Wells says people like Doran are those helping build the bank, and raise awareness about heart disease in women.

“Having this amazing database will allow us to look at the data as a whole and see, what were the risk factors for heart failure? Including pregnancy,” she says.

Once collected, the samples will be housed at the Maritime Heart Centre in New Brunswick, in collaboration with Dalhousie Medical School in both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

“It's allowing us to build this database to look for better diagnostic tools,” says Wells. “And develop a better understanding of the mechanisms of these diseases and treatments.”

To donate to the Molly Appeal, visit their website.

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