Cardiac researcher inspires donors

Mar 07, 2002, vol. 23, no. 5
By Carol Thorbes

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Simon Fraser University physiologist Glen Tibbits has no hard numbers on the extent to which his talks about his research inspire potential donors to give to B.C.'s Children's Hospital Foundation.

But it's clear from the grants that he secures that he has no trouble convincing granting councils and philanthropic groups of the worthiness of his work.

A molecular cardiac physiologist at SFU's school of kinesiology, Tibbits is a familiar face at fundraisers for the foundation. The organization raises funds for B.C.'s only pediatric hospital.

Tibbits tells potential donors about how their money can further his research on congenital heart diseases. Such genetic heart defects afflict 600 newborns annually in B.C.

About 250 of them need life saving open heart surgery at birth or before the age of two.

Tibbits, whose research is partially funded by B.C.'s Children's Hospital Foundation, explains how his exploration of the developing heart and congenital heart diseases could one day save many lives.

“Potential donors need to know where their money is going and who it's benefiting if they're going to be motivated to give,” says Tibbits emphatically.

In the last six years, Tibbits' research at SFU has netted him close to $1 million in grants.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of British Columbia and the Yukon, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council as well as the foundation have been long time financial backers.

Most recently the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) awarded Tibbits, a first-time recipient of the granting council's funds, $134,000 annually for five years.

Tibbits speculates that his work at a new lab, which he is in charge of setting up, enabled him to secure one of the CIHR's largest grants this year.

The new lab is located at B.C.'s Research Institute of Children's and Women's Health at B.C. Children's hospital. Tibbits' CIHR funding will pay for two thirds of the new lab's operating costs.

As the director (pro tem) of the cardiovascular sciences group at the lab, Tibbits is overseeing collaborative research on the development of the cardiovascular system, including the genetic causes of congenital heart diseases. The lab is the first of its kind in B.C.

Tibbits' work at the lab is focused on understanding how proteins, which regulate the heart's intake and removal of calcium, function in a developing heart compared to an adult one. Calcium enables the heart to contract, but can also turn it to stone, if it floods the organ.

Infants undergoing open heart surgery are four times more likely to have serious complications than adults because developing hearts have an abundance of a protein that regulates calcium intake and removal.

Tibbits is developing a clinical procedure that prevents this protein, the sodium calcium exchanger, from flooding a developing heart with calcium.

“In the short term, we want to be able to design surgical procedures that are tailored to the calcium handling capabilities of a child's heart at various stages of development,” explains Tibbits. “We also want these procedures to be tailored to specific congenital heart defects.”

Adds Tibbits mischievously, “The surgeons are quite excited about our long term goal, which is to put them out of business.”

Tibbits hopes to develop gene therapies that will enable doctors to correct or replace genes that cause congenital heart diseases while a fetus is still in the womb.

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