Saint John, N.B. – A team of local researchers is on the hunt for the cause of a silent killer.
In a laboratory at the University of New Brunswick Saint John (UNBSJ), Dr. Thomas Pulinilkunnil and a team of 10 lead researchers are investigating the biological, genetic and molecular origins of a new type of heart failure called heart failure with preserved ejection fraction (HFpEF). HFpEF constitutes half of all heart failure cases today and has a high incidence rate among New Brunswick women who are suffering from obesity and diabetes, often coming to light during menopause. The condition was recently uncovered through improved diagnostic procedures.
“What we’re really trying to understand is why is this heart disease so silent?” says Dr. Pulinilkunnil, who is an associate professor at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick, located at UNBSJ. “We know it results from inefficient pumping of the left ventricle over time, going unnoticed. The HFpEF treatment approach is currently similar between sexes, however women experience worse outcomes and don’t react to treatment as well as men. There is an urgent need to make advances in effective treatment to help more patients sooner.”
Dr. Pulinikunnil says that heart disease is the most common cause of death among people who have obesity and diabetes. It is extremely prevalent in the Maritimes, with 193 to 200 deaths per 100,000.
“This makes it a big challenge going forward for New Brunswick,” he says. “That’s why we’re working hard to find answers, to reduce the burden and impact of heart disease and help make a positive difference in patients’ quality of life and their families’, as well as the health-care system as a whole.”
A Diabetes Canada Scholar, Dr. Pulinilkunnil is also an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Dalhousie University, as well as an adjunct professor at the University of New Brunswick, all based out of Saint John.
A major supporter of the research project is the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation (NBHRF).
“While other provinces have their own research foundations, very few have agencies that take such a personalized approach,” says Dr. Pulinilkunnil. “I’m very grateful for the connected and close relationship we’ve had with the NBHRF over the last 10 years. They’re very open to collaborations with various funding sources, which has helped us continue to expand our scope and take big steps forward toward achieving our goals.”
The NBHRF is an innovation enabler and supports a wide range of health research projects from the ground up by providing initial funding and offering critical guidance to researchers, connecting them to funding sources and helping expand their network. Projects developed with the NBHRF’s help can change lives, strengthen the health care system, and lead to new innovative health care solutions, business practices and new products.
“We’re proud to support the research that Dr. Pulinilkunnil is leading out of Saint John,” says Damon Goodwin, chief executive officer of the NBHRF. “He started with a $40,000 grant and the NBHRF was able to support him in turning that into more than $4 million in research funding. We’re pleased to be partnered with his team and the many others that are working hard to make positive change in our health care system and those around the world.”
NBHRF support has enabled Dr. Pulinilkunnil to capture additional grant support from agencies such as the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, Diabetes Canada and notably the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Recently Dr. Pulinilkunnil and his team applied for a $7.3 million Canada Foundation for Innovation 2023 Innovation Fund competition, which if successful will bring cutting edge infrastructure to N.B. to study this kind of complex pathology.
Dr. Pulinilkunnil is also grateful for the ongoing funding and partnership of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of New Brunswick, which has continued to support the project.
The cardiac research project is continuing to grow, and now also involves a team of Nova Scotia researchers. Together, they’ve formed the Dalhousie Cardiac Research Excellence Wave, expanding the scope of the project to be Maritimes-wide.
Through a partnership with clinical researchers at the Saint John Regional Hospital and through funding from the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, Dr. Pulinilkunnil (as a member of the IMPART Team of researchers, along with Dr. Petra Kienesberger and Dr. Keith Brunt), has established a cardiac-focused biobank to further support research efforts into studying HFpEF.
Originally from Mumbai, India, Dr. Pulinilkunnil has lived in Canada for the last 22 years and has called N.B. home since 2012. He received his PhD from the University of British Columbia followed by two postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard Medical School and the University of Alberta. His research team includes research technicians, biobanking staff, undergraduate medical and honours students, MSc and PhD students, and postdoctoral fellows.
When asked where his motivation comes from, Dr. Pulinilkunnil credits his late mother who was a nurse for 35 years, and the fact that cardiovascular disease and diabetes are both prevalent in his extended family.
New Brunswick Health Research Foundation