Dr. Christopher Ahern (right)
University of British Columbia
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada (HSFC)'s McDonald Scholarship is awarded to the Foundation’s highest-rated New Investigator.
By looking at things from the cell out, a talented young scientist hopes to find a better way to treat a stroke-triggering heart condition
Dr. Chris Ahern likes to take things further.
The 2008-09 HSFC McDonald Scholar has already devoted a decade to furthering the understanding of the inner workings of ion channels that, among other things, regulate the body’s electrical circuitry. The McDonald Scholarship will allow him to dedicate the next five years to use that work to attempt to solve a molecular mystery.
“I am committed to making the research happen,” says the transplanted American. “This award means it will happen much sooner.”
Dr. Ahern is interested in the root causes of cardiac arrhythmia. A growing health concern in a rapidly aging population, arrhythmia occurs when the electrical impulses in the heart go off kilter because the proteins (called ‘ion channels’) that move salt in and out of the cells misfire. It can cause blood clots that trigger stroke.
Drugs used for arrhythmia prevent the heart cells from misfiring but scientists don’t know the details of why or how.
And the drugs used to treat cardiac arrhythmia can affect similar ion channels in the brain or elsewhere in the body where, surprisingly, they can be used for epilepsy and chronic pain. While having multiple treatment options for any disease is generally thought to be a good thing, Dr. Ahern believes that we can do better and hopes that his research leads to cardiac-specific drugs.
Dr. Ahern is working from the cell out to discover how these drugs interact with the proteins. Understanding what’s going on at the cellular level, he says, will help tailor treatments for cardiac arrhythmia.
“It’s an exciting field and a fascinating topic,” says Dr. Ahern. “There is so much work that has been done that sets the standards high. I’m intimidated but also excited to contribute to the field, to have the opportunity to take things further.”
Fast facts about: Dr. Chris Ahern
- is proof the 'science gene' exists: his father was a chemist.
- arrived at the University of British Columbia in January 2008, attracted by the "high-density of scientists" there and the internationally important work being done in Canada.
Quote: “What is at the root of heart arrhythmia? Why do the drugs we have now work in some cases, but not in others? Finding out will help in designing the next generation of heart drugs.”