Tom Claydon

Smith award aids heart research

October 2, 2008

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By Diane Luckow

What causes a seemingly healthy individual to suddenly die from cardiac arrest?

Assistant professor Tom Claydon, who joined the SFU kinesiology department last January, tackles that question at the cellular level. He recently received a Career Investigator Scholar Award from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research to further his research into the heart’s electrical activity.

Claydon studies potassium ion channels—proteins found in the membrane of heart cells—which are crucial in controlling the spread of electrical charges through the heart to keep it beating. These channels open to allow the cell to discharge after being excited during each contraction or beat, and then close again to allow generation of the next heartbeat.

Scientists don’t fully understand how key potassium channels function, however, and how the process is modulated during disease. The Claydon lab is one of very few groups able to attach fluorescent tags to ion-channel proteins in the cell membrane and directly observe the molecular mechanisms underlying their function.

"The fluorescent tag gives us a real-time view of how the protein is moving and what’s going on in the channel so that we can understand how it works and how it’s modulated by drugs," explains Claydon. The process can also assess the effect of changes in the cell’s environment such as low acidity, which is associated with myocardial ischemia, or inherited mutations.

"Not many labs in the world can do that—it sets us apart."

In people with a hereditary mutation in one of these channels—perhaps a single different amino acid—the channel doesn’t function properly and they can develop a life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia.

"So it’s very important to understand how these channels work and how these mutations cause the channel to stop functioning properly."

Claydon, who earned his PhD at Leeds University in England, says SFU’s research environment is perfect for his work because he can collaborate with SFU experts in cardiovascular physiology and ion-channel biophysics.

Scholar awards for four more faculty

Four other SFU faculty have received 2008 scholar awards from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research. Senior Scholar awards pay out $500,000 over five years while scholar awards pay out $480,000 over six years.

Olena Hankivsky, an associate professor in the public policy program, received a Senior Scholar award under the population-health category for her project “New perspectives on gender, diversity and health policy, planning and services.”

Allison Kermode, professor of plant cell and molecular biology, received a Senior Scholar award under the biomedical category to move her research on plant-based therapeutics for rare genetic childhood diseases to the next level. She and her research team have found a way to produce a human enzyme in genetically modified plants that could potentially treat a devastating metabolic disorder, called MPS I, in children. Severe MPS I disease affects all of the major organ systems and results in death in early childhood.

"Now we need to show that the protein is of sufficiently high quality for use as a human therapeutic," says Kermode, who hopes it can also be used in newborn screening programs. Using plants as tools for the screening of small-molecule therapeutics is one of her new initiatives.

Assistant professor of engineering science Marinko Sarunic received a Scholar award to continue his work on non-invasive functional retinal imaging.

Assistant professor of engineering science Mirza Faisal Beg received a Scholar award to further his research into using magnetic resonance scans to improve the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease.
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