OTTAWA – Growing up in Stellarton, Dr. Lynn Megeney didn’t really know what a scientist was or did.
Dr. Lynn Megeney, originally of Stellarton, discovered that proteins involved in cell death also play a key role in abnormal heart muscle thickening. The scientist, who obtained his undergrad at St. FX, conducted his research at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the University of Ottawa. SUBMITTED
Years later however, Megeney, now a scientist, is making advances in important aspects of cardiology.
While most people would consider a big heart to be a good thing, for heart disease experts, it is often a sign of serious disease. Megeney made the surprising discovery at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the University of Ottawa. He discovered that proteins involved in cell death also play a key role in abnormal heart muscle thickening.
The research, published in the Oct. 7, 2013, online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), could lead to new treatments for certain forms of heart disease.
“Heart muscle thickening, called cardiac hypertrophy, can be a healthy response to exercise and pregnancy,” said Megeney. “However, it often occurs in people with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart failure and certain genetic conditions.”
In these people, roughly 15 per cent of the population, the heart can easily grow twice as large as normal due to an increase in the size of individual heart muscle cells. Too much growth can lead to increased stiffness and reduced blood supply, and eventually reduced pumping function and heart failure.
Several years ago, Megeney noticed that heart muscle cells undergoing this kind of abnormal growth had many similarities with cells that are beginning to undergo an orderly form of cell suicide called programmed cell death. In the current research paper, Megeney and his team show that blocking the proteins that control this form of cell death also blocks abnormal heart muscle thickening.
Megeney and his team exposed rats to a number of different drugs that each induce abnormal heart muscle thickening. The rats were then given a form of experimental gene therapy to block cell suicide proteins in the heart. Three weeks later, the rats that received the experimental therapy had much smaller heart muscle cells (37 per cent smaller than those that did not receive the therapy), and smaller hearts overall. In fact, the disease model rats that received the experimental therapy seemed just as healthy as normal rats.
“Our research shows, for the first time, that heart muscle cells use the same molecular machinery for unhealthy growth as they would use to commit suicide,” said Megeney. “This may seem quite surprising to some people, but it fits with a growing body of research showing that cell death proteins can play many other roles in the body.”
Pausing for reflection, Megeney said small-town beginnings don’t have to hold anyone back.
“You don’t have to come from an urban centre to do what you want to do. I had a great education in a small high school,” he said. “I had no plans on being a scientist. I was never exposed to it since there aren’t many scientists in Pictou County.”
His father, George Megeney, a former Stellarton police officer and current member of town council, knew his son would go far.
“He was a avid reader and he's got a phenomenal memory,” he noted. “If I had just a tenth of his memory I’d be far better off.”
Megeney said his desire to know how things work in medicine was why he went into the research side rather than practice side of medicine.
“Experimentation is crucial,” Megeney noted. “Finding out how things work and then seeing if that leads to the deeper understandings is what it’s all about.”
He noted that while more research needs to be done on this latest discovery, he believes it’s only a matter of time before new strategies for treating certain forms of heart disease will present themselves.
“We are already investigating possible approaches to achieve this in humans, and we have identified some promising leads.”
Dr. Duncan Stewart, a practising cardiologist who is also CEO and scientific director of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, noted the research is particularly applicable to certain genetic forms of heart disease, as well as to hypertension, which affects about 40 per cent of the adult population in Canada.
The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) is the research arm of The Ottawa Hospital and is an affiliated institute of the University of Ottawa, closely associated with the university’s Faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences. OHRI includes more than 1,700 scientists, clinical investigators, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and staff conducting research to improve the understanding, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disease. www.ohri.ca
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