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Global connections

Manitoba's reputation as a centre for research has attracted scientists from around the world

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Wave, November / December 2012

Naranjan Dhalla was a gangly 25-year-old with dreams of a bright future when he left his home in India more than 50 years ago.

Having just graduated with a science degree, Dhalla first headed to the United States to study pharmacology. It would turn out to be a temporary stop.

After a few years south of the border, he took a position as a professor at the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine. It was a fortuitous move.

Over the next four decades, the slim young man from northern India would go on to become one of the world's leading cardiac researchers.

Through his work - which has been cited more than 14,000 times in medical journals - Dhalla has advanced the understanding of cardiovascular disease and helped to develop new treatments. He has also helped put Winnipeg on the map as a centre for cardiac sciences, attracting research dollars and mentoring talented young scientists.

His contributions have not gone unnoticed - a bust of his likeness can be found in the city's Assiniboine Park Citizens Hall of Fame.

But Dhalla's story is more than a tale of one man's success. It is also a prime example of the important role immigration has played in helping to build Manitoba's medical and health research community, one that continues to this day.

Over the years, Manitoba has attracted dozens of brilliant minds from around the globe, thanks in no small part to the Manitoba Health Research Council.

This provincial funding body for health research has provided incentives to attract graduate and post-graduate students from India, China, France, Japan, and many other countries. Many are embarking on promising careers in medicine and science. Their work is helping to establish Manitoba as a leader in research in Canada and around the world.

Now in his mid-70s, Dhalla is quick to credit his adopted home as a large reason for his success in health research.

"I had an extraordinary experience living in Manitoba," says Dhalla, a principal investigator at the Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences at St-Boniface Hospital. "People have been so kind to me; it's unbelievable."

He also credits the MHRC for helping to attract the best and the brightest to the province. Not only has the council helped fund Dhalla's research, it has also helped attract and retain some of his colleagues, including Dr. Pawan Singal, a principal investigator specializing in cell pathophysiology.

Singal is also from northern India and originally immigrated to Edmonton to work on his PhD in physiology. He then worked on his post-doctoral fellowship in physiology at the University of Saskatchewan and landed a position at the University of Manitoba in the late 1970s as a lecturer and associate researcher.

Singal was just embarking on his own career path in research when the MHRC opened its doors for business. It was a case of perfect timing: its funding helped keep him here in the province.

"That (MHRC) grant was my seed money in Manitoba to set up a lab," Singal says. "And indeed, that funding turned out to play a huge role for me to bring in more funding from national sources."

That's what MHRC funding is all about - getting young investigators started. They can launch their research, get some early results, and that promise attracts money from larger funding sources.

That concept worked very well for Singal. Today, he is the Director of the Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences at St-Boniface Hospital Research and a leading researcher in cardiac cell biology.

"My budget, from that start of $10,000, has grown to as high as $400,000 annually," he says, noting that much of the money comes from sources such as the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, and Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

The return on investment in both Dhalla and Singal's instances has been remarkable, as they have both helped to advance medicine in their respective fields.

Singal, for example, has spent much of his career studying how heart tissue cells die. Typically, when heart muscle cells are starved of oxygen, they become damaged. They do not regenerate and most often quickly die. This leads to heart failure - the heart muscle's capacity is reduced so it's less able to pump blood to provide the needed supply of nutrients to the rest of the body.

Through his work, Singal has also investigated the role free radicals play in heart failure. Free radicals are unstable molecules that cause oxidization in cells, which is a little bit like rust on metal.

Singal discovered that cell damage and death aren't necessarily caused by a lack of oxygen. It's often the mishandling of oxygen by the cell during times of stress that causes problems.

Like Singal, Dhalla's research into cardiovascular disease has also been groundbreaking. His work helped prove the connection between diabetes and cardiomyopathy - the medical term for heart tissue infections.

"At one time, many scientists thought there was no connection whatsoever," he says. "Now, we know it's a fairly common complication and understand its causes."

Dhalla's team has also studied the effects of hormones on the heart tissue during heart attacks. As well, he has been instrumental in understanding the role of calcium and oxidative stress during heart attacks and ischemic strokes.

This work has led to the development of early drug treatment interventions for stroke and heart attack sufferers in the Emergency Department, saving several thousands of people from life-threatening damage to their hearts, brains and other major organs.

Both Singal and Dhalla's research has had enormous impact at home and abroad. Singal organized the Winnipeg Heart International Conference in October 2011, partly supported by the MHRC. The focus of the conference was to bring back former trainees and collaborators to Winnipeg. A total of 300 delegates came from 23 countries, representing a direct impact of their training in Winnipeg.

Like many other researchers who have come from other parts of the world, received MHRC funding and established themselves as top-notch scientists, Dhalla and Singal are also mentors, educators and benefactors. They want to share their knowledge with the rest of the world - and in particular, with their country of origin.

This is not unusual, says Dr. Peter Nickerson, Associate Dean (Research) at the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine, and a member of the MHRC's board. Researchers from other countries who come to Winnipeg often help build relationships with other research centres and universities around the world.

He cites the example of Dr. Patrick Choy, a cardiovascular health researcher and a former associate dean (Research) at the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine. Choy's research has provided insight into how fat proteins cause atherosclerosis, the leading cause of cardiovascular disease. Atherosclerosis is a buildup of fatty deposits, known as plaque, in the lining of the arterial walls. Part of his research has involved the medicinal uses of Chinese herbs and other natural products to promote arterial health.

Although he lives and works here, Choy still has one foot in China. And he's a firm believer in the exchange of ideas between medical communities in both nations.

These kinds of connections can help attract funding dollars. For example, Nickerson says Choy helped attract funding from successful Chinese businessman Li Ka- Shing's foundation to establish an exchange program between the U of M and Shantou University in China.

"We've sent our medical students to observe and learn how medicine is practised in China and they've sent their students to do the same here," he says.

Similar relationships are now found all over the world. HIV researchers Drs. Frank Plummer and Allan Ronald, for example, have forged very strong ties with African nations like Kenya and Uganda, as well as leading research centres in Europe and the U.S.

These relationships have helped Manitoba earn a stellar reputation as a research centre, and have helped attract top experts, including Dr. Jean-Eric Ghia.

Ghia is one of the world's leading researchers in inflammatory bowel disease, studying the role of the neuro-endocrine system - basically the systems regulating the brain and the body's hormones - in digestive disorders like colitis and Crohn's disease.

"We've had students come from around the world," Nickerson says. "They come here to complete their degrees and then they go back to their home countries to set up their research labs, and certainly, we have researchers in Manitoba who have research projects set up around the world."

And today, as in the past, many got their start in part because of funding from the MHRC. It's a pattern that will likely only become more pronounced in the future as word spreads about the province's reputation as a place for nurturing aspiring world-class medical scientists.

Certainly, attracting top talent is great for our health-care system. But it's more important than just the local effect, Singal says. "It's about bringing up the level of health research around the world and growing the global brain capital in fighting disease."

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