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UHN’s Dr. Billia wins Young Investigator Award

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The Canadian Cardiovascular Society acknowledges exceptional individuals for their scientific achievements and contributions. This year, this includes Dr. Billia’s research. (Photo: UHN)

Her leading-edge research into the processes needed to allow heart cells to regenerate has earned Dr. Phyllis Billia, cardiologist and clinical scientist at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, the prestigious Young Investigator Award from the Canadian Cardiovascular Society.

“This national award is an incredible achievement for someone at my level,” said Dr. Billia, whose research team at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre has presented direct evidence that regeneration of heart cells is possible. “To be recognized by peers nationally is an honour. I am still in the early stages of my career and thought that this achievement would go to someone more worthy. But I was ecstatic when I got an email from the Canadian Cardiovascular Society with the announcement. I had to read it several times to make sure that I was reading it correctly.”

The Canadian Cardiovascular Society acknowledges exceptional individuals for their scientific achievements and contributions. Dr. Billia’s research is both novel and significant in the area of cardiovascular disease. Her research into heart cell regeneration could also potentially be applied to other organs that do not naturally regenerate (including the kidney and pancreas).

It was her experience as a post-doctoral fellow at the Campbell Family Institute for Cancer Research in Dr. Tak Mak’s laboratory that played a significant role in Dr. Billia’s breakthrough discovery around heart muscle cell regeneration.

“Heart muscle cells are somehow prevented or suppressed from regenerating,” explains Dr. Billia. “If they are damaged during a heart attack, for example, the damage is irreversible.  In the cancer world, it is well known that tumour suppressor genes force cancer cells to die rather than regenerate and proliferate. Tumour suppressors also help stop cancer from spreading. In the heart, tumor suppressor genes prevent the heart from regenerating, as well.”

Now Dr. Billia is studying how to manipulate these tumour suppressor genes and refocus them on damaged heart cells – thereby controlling heart regeneration.

“I would categorize my work as being ‘outside the box’,” says Dr. Billia when asked why she thinks the award was given to her. “It is out of the ordinary and takes my exposure to working in a cancer laboratory doing my post-doctoral studies into account. It challenges the dogma of traditional boundaries associated with individual specialties; even people in the tumour suppressor field are intrigued by the results of my work.”

By developing ways to reverse damage done to the heart and allow for the heart to regenerate from within, Dr. Billia’s work holds the possibility to reducing the need for other existing therapies, such as long-term drug therapy and its association with side effects and negative impact on quality of life, or risky surgical interventions.

“While I have been put forth for national awards to support my research and have been very fortunate to receive support from the Canadian Institute for Health Research on several levels, the receipt of this award surpasses what I have received in the past, in terms of recognition from my peers,” says Dr. Billia. “I have a worked a long time to get where I am and this makes it all worthwhile.”

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