by Helena Bryan; photography by Brian Smith
Each successive generation of medical specialists stands on the shoulders of the giant who came before them. Now, thanks to a recently established scholarship honouring pioneering heart specialist Dr. Charles Kerr, founder and former head of the cardiac electrophysiology program (EP) at UBC and St. Paul’s, two talented young physicians—Dr. Zachary Laksman and Dr. Nathaniel Hawkins—are conducting groundbreaking research that could transform the lives of the thousands of British Columbians
experiencing debilitating and potentially fatal heart arrhythmias.
Attracting world-class talent
The seeds of the UBC Dr. Charles Kerr Scholarship in electrophysiology were planted two years ago when Kerr, together with Dr. Andrew Ignaszewski, head of St. Paul’s Cardiology Division, had a serious discussion about how to attract high quality people interested in both academic careers and research.
“There’s so little funding for research and extremely limited salary supports,’ says Kerr. ‘You basically have to raise the funds on your own.’
So, Kerr made some key introductions and Ignaszewski took it from there, lobbying for the new research scholarship, which is generously funded by the medical technology company Medtronic (in partnership with St. Paul’s Foundation and UBC) and named after Kerr.
Now fully realized, the UBC Dr. Charles Kerr Scholarship not only makes it possible for St. Paul’s to attract and retain two of the electrophysiology field’s most talented young investigators and clinicians each
year, it also provides the scholars access to additional research funding sources.
The first two recipients of the scholarship, Drs. Laksman and Hawkins, are already setting the bar high, each undertaking world-leading research in their respective areas of electrophysiology.
“They’re both brilliant young men with excellent research potential in very different but complementary ways,” says Kerr.
Personalized medicine to target treatment
Dr. Zachary Laksman, the UBC Dr. Charles Kerr Distinguished Scholar in cardiovascular genetics, is conducting cutting-edge research on the genetic basis for diseases of the heart muscle, heart rhythm, and sudden cardiac death.
He’s currently focusing on the most common form of arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation. It is expected that one in four 40-year-old men and women will go on to develop atrial fibrillation in their lifetime.
While some people don’t even know they have atrial fibrillation, others experience debilitating symptoms, and some can go on to develop a deterioration of heart muscle function. What’s more, atrial fibrillation is a major cause of stroke.
“I’m looking for the genes that put people at risk for developing atrial fibrillation, and ways to personalize therapy based on this information,” says Laksman, whose interest in the field of heart rhythm disorders was sparked in high school when a friend’s brother died suddenly during a track meet due to a lethal heart rhythm.
“Using a new technology, we can make stem cells from patients’ blood samples to model their disease by growing their heart cells in a dish. We use this model to understand disease at the individual level, and hopefully tailor therapy,” says Laksman. “What we’re eventually hoping to do is predict a person’s disease course and provide treatments that are safer and more effective.”
Heart devices to save lives
Dr. Nathaniel Hawkins is the UBC Dr. Charles Kerr Distinguished Scholar in heart rhythm management. An expert in heart failure, as well as the use of pacemakers and defibrillators in patients with cardiac
arrhythmias, Hawkins is looking at developing registries and data systems to more effectively identify patients with heart rhythm issues who could benefit from these lifesaving heart devices.
“We’re trying to map out what the health system barriers are to identifying patients who could benefit from these devices, so we can overcome those barriers,” says Hawkins. “Once patients actually receive their devices, we’re also working on ways to fine tune the device function and optimize the benefits of heart devices.”
Caring for heart device patients in remote areas is particularly challenging, but Hawkins hopes to change that, too. He’s studying the benefits of remote monitoring of these patients.
Lastly, Hawkins will be investigating and following up outcomes in patients with heart devices—research that will ultimately lead to fewer complications and higher survival rates: “Basically, we’re finding patients for devices, optimizing their benefits and monitoring them remotely with an eye to developing a provincial strategy.”
Two doctors, two different fields, but both are carrying on the tradition of pioneering started more than three decades ago by the scholarship’s namesake, Dr. Charles Kerr.
“It’s such an honour to be here,” says Laksman. “This program continues to be groundbreaking, even in this new era of genetic, personalized medicine.”
To find out how you can support care, research and teaching at St. Paul’s, please contact St. Paul’s Foundation at 604-682-8206 or donate online at www.helpstpauls.com/donate