Research with a heart

Jun 12, 2003, vol. 27, no. 4
By Carol Thorbes

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Thinking outside the box not only took Todd Gillis (left) down a potentially life-saving research path, but also garnered the Simon Fraser University graduand a convocation medal.

Gillis' pioneering doctoral work has earned him the dean of graduate studies convocation medal in science.

The Hamilton, Ontario native discovered that a protein that keeps a rainbow trout's heart ticking at low temperatures might also improve the survival and recovery rates of heart attack victims.

Troponin C is the calcium-activated trigger that initiates heart contraction in all animals, including fish and mammals.

“Heart cells aren't as sensitive to calcium in a heart attack victim and so the heart doesn't contract properly,” explains Gillis, who is graduating with a doctorate in biological sciences this spring.

Malfunctioning heart muscles can cause oxygen deprivation and death.
Researchers normally use mammalian tissue to study the molecular make-up of human cells.

But Gillis' work with Arctic marine invertebrates and decision to do his doctoral studies with SFU kinesiologist Glen Tibbits led him down an unforeseen path.

“I've always been fascinated by animals being able to live under conditions that would kill humans,” says Gillis, a graduate of Sherwood secondary school in Hamilton. “Arctic and Antarctic fish can swim incredibly well at minus one degree, while the human heart would stop at that temperature.”

Tibbits is studying Troponin C in the hopes of helping scientists develop drugs that would make the protein more calcium sensitive in a weakened heart.

Gillis has identified four differences in the amino acid sequence of rainbow trout cardiac Troponin C, which account for trout being able to maintain cardiac function in frigid water.

He has also used nuclear magnetic resonance imaging to characterize differences in the function of trout and mammalian cardiac Troponin C, a pioneer achievement.

Gillis is now on a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington's department of bioengineering in Seattle.

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