Expanded Saint John bio-bank would help cardiac research

Cardiac specialists and researchers hope an expanded Saint John bio-bank, where tissue and blood samples are stored after heart surgeries, will lead to a greater understanding of heart disease and heart failure. 

Money for the bio-bank project is being raised this spring through the Molly Appeal, the annual fundraising campaign of the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation.

Dr. Jean-François Légaré, head of cardiac surgery at the New Brunswick Heart Centre in Saint John, said the bio-bank can store fat tissues, blood samples and even small pieces of the heart removed during surgery.

The biological samples are kept for testing and analysis as researchers try to determine why some people are more prone to heart disease than others.

Légaré cited differences in the occurrence of heart disease among men and women as one area of study.

"You're able to collect from many different individuals and you're able to then look at the biology of certain diseases and try to compare patients for example that would be more vulnerable than others," he said in an interview with Information Morning Moncton.

Why are some more at risk than others?

According to a report released by the Heart and Stroke Foundation in 2018, heart disease is the leading cause of premature death for women in Canada. It also found women are five times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer. 

It's very rare to have samples from human patients, these are hard things to get. -Dr. Jean-François Légaré

The bio-bank data, which would include information about the patients, would help scientists determine risk factors for heart trouble, shifting the focus to prevention from dealing with the disease once it's established.  

"We hope that by identifying these differences then we'd be able to have some tests in the future to detect the reasons why and identify patients that are vulnerable before they develop heart disease," Légaré said.

"That would be the holy grail for us." 

Funds are also needed for equipment, supplies, analysis of samples and to support research trainees.

Scientists oversee the data, which is catalogued, annotated, databased and stored. More than a dozen researchers in Halifax and Saint John will be able to use the tissues and data. 

Permission of patients is necessary before tissues are stored, and more than 400 cardiac patients in Saint John have already become donors. The Saint John bio-bank is one of the largest facilities east of Montreal.  

Légaré said biological samples are collected every few weeks, but with the expansion, researchers are hoping to collect samples every day.

"It's very rare to have samples from human patients," he said. "These are hard things to get." 

Légaré said future generations will be helped by the samples because they could lead to new treatments and medication.

"The people who donate the samples, there's actual almost no benefit to them … they're doing that for people in the future," he said.

He said the bio-bank will also attract people to New Brunswick to study these diseases.

"It brings a lot of brain power and novel ideas," he said.