By MYRON LOVE From a very young age, Lorrie Kirshenbaum knew that he wanted to devote his life to science and research.
Today, Kirshenbaum is a world leader in cardiovascular research whose team at the St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre is working on providing better outcomes for both heart disease and cancer.
KIrshebaum, who is the head of Cardiac Gene Biology, Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences at St. Boniface Hospital Research; Director of Research Development and Professor of Physiology and Pathophysiology, Max Rady College of Medicine Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Manitoba, is head of a team at St. B that has recently been awarded a prestigious Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant of $3.3 million over seven years. That was the largest of 80 such grants awarded to the top Canadian Medical Research Scientists across Canada (including three others in Manitoba).
Over the course of his 20-plus year career, Kirshenbaum and his team have attracted more than $20 million in research grants. “The grants have paid for a lot of specialized equipment, salaries and training for young scientists,” Kirshenbaum says.
For most of the last 20 years, Kirshenbaum and his team have been focusing on understanding heart failure. “We were the first lab to discover Bnip3, a gene that “switches on” and programs heart cells to die during a heart attack,” he says.
Dr. Kirshenbaum and his colleagues have been engaged in research aimed at finding ways to keep heart cells alive to prevent heart failure – and preventing Bnip3, the death gene, from turning on in the first place.
Five years ago, Kirshenbaum’s lab added cancer research to their efforts as a result of discovering that Bnip3 also plays a role in the propagation of cancer cells. “We are searching for ways to turn off Bnip3 in cases of heart attack and turn on the gene to slow or stop the growth ofcancer cells,” Kirshenbaum says.
One other aspect of this cancer-heart disease link is the use of the drug Doxorubicin in chemotherapy. One side effect of the drug is that it can lead to heart failure. Kirshenbaum’s lab is also doing research into the prevention of that side effect.
Kirshenbaum and his St. Boniface Hospital colleagues are also part of an international effort to study the effects of stem cells in regenerating damaged cardiac muscles (as well as a slew of other medical conditions). In a report he wrote with colleagues Dr. Rimpy Dhingra and Victoria Margulets, the researchers point out that stem cells differ from any other cells in the body in that they can continue to replicate themselves and can be reprogrammed into many different kinds of cells within the body.
Whereas stem cell research used to be controversial in that the stem cells were being taken from fetuses, that is no longer the case.
Today, stem cells are harvested from the patient, re-engineered in the lab and re-introduced into the patient in the area where they are intended to do their work, e.g., a damaged heart.
Kirshenbaum notes that Vicky Margulets is in charge of the cell culture program in his lab. She was doing research at the Technion before coming to the St. Boniface lab seven years ago. Originally from Kiev (where she received her training), she lived in Israel for 20 years.
“We do a lot of collaborative work with Israeli researchers,” Kirshenbaum says. “There is a lot of great research coming out of Israel. We have also trained several Israeli students.”
Kirshenbaum is looking forward to a new collaborative relationship that community leader Larry Vickar brokered between the St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research and Ben-Gurion University last spring.
“(Ben-Gurion University President) Rivka Carmi visited here in early September and we are going to Beersheva in January,” Kirshenbaum says. “We are going to meet her team and set up an ongoing collaborative program. We are looking forward to student and scientific exchanges and learning from each other. We are anticipating that the developments from our free flowing exchange of ideas and research will have a global impact.”