Science & Research

Dr. Grant Pierce

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2012

Cell biologist Dr. Grant Pierce has been studying the causes of heart disease for decades. But his focus hasn't been so much on the organ itself as it has been on the roadways that lead away from the heart: the arteries.

"I would say 80 per cent of heart disease is not a heart problem," says the principal investigator at the Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences at St-Boniface Hospital Research.

"It's actually vascular problems, meaning it's a problem with your arteries," says Pierce, who is also a principal investigator at the Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine.

Heart attacks and most strokes are caused by blockages in the arteries. In the case of a heart attack, the coronary artery is partially blocked, limiting blood flow to the heart muscle. This can lead to heart failure and death.

Pierce, a professor of physiology at the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine, and his team have been trying to understand what leads to poor arterial health and what can be done to keep our vascular system in tip-top shape to reduce atherosclerosis, the leading cause of strokes and heart attacks.

To that end, they've been working on a number of fronts, including studying the role of flaxseed in maintaining healthy arteries and repairing damaged ones. "Flax reduces the plaque build-up in arteries, and we think it does this because it has anti-inflammatory properties," he says. "It also appears to stop something called 'cell proliferation,' which is when one cell divides into two, then into four, then turning into eight, etc." Cell proliferation leads to a build-up of plaque in the artery wall, which in turn reduces blood flow.

Pierce has been exploring on a molecular level why this happens, and his team has uncovered many of the molecular mechanisms that lead to unhealthy arteries. It's research that could someday lead to new treatments. But their work's potential benefits extend beyond treating cardiovascular disease.

"Cell growth is a central figure in just about every disease," Pierce says, adding that uncontrolled cell growth is cancer's calling card. "If we can find ways to prevent that cell growth in arteries, we have a nice target for many different illnesses."

Wave: November / December 2012

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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