Dr. Husam Abdel-Qadir
Peter Munk Cardiac Centre cardiologist Dr. Husam Abdel-Qadir was earlier today awarded Ontario’s Polanyi Prize for his research related to cancer and heart disease, specifically in women with breast cancer. (Photo: UHN)

When Dr. Husam Abdel-Qadir began his research career, he received a word of advice from his mentors: if you notice variations in physicians' practice for no clear reason, it often indicates there is an insufficient body of data to guide decision-making and, therefore, room for more research.

Today, this Women's College Hospital and Peter Munk Cardiac Centre (PMCC) cardiologist is being honoured for his work, which he says wouldn't be possible without his two aforementioned mentors: PMCC's own cardiologist Dr. Douglas Lee, and cardiologist and researcher Dr. Jack Tu, who recently passed away.

The award is handed out by the Province of Ontario, which provides up to five prizes annually to outstanding researchers in the early stages of their career, and who are continuing on to post-doctoral studies, or who have recently embarked on a faculty appointment at an Ontario university.

This year, the prizes each have a value of $20,000, and are awarded in the following areas: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and economic science.

The award is named for Dr. John Charles Polanyi, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Each researcher picking up a prize was nominated by their respective institution. In Dr. Abdel-Qadir's case, it was the University of Toronto, where his PhD focused on women treated with breast cancer, and how that treatment — chemotherapy, radiation or hormonal manipulation — harms the heart.

Noticed many treated for heart disease had other medical issues

"The good news is that the prognosis for women with breast cancer is better than the prognosis for other cancers," he says. "The barometer for success is no longer only getting rid of the cancer.

"Now, the expectation is that we get rid of the cancer and the women are as healthy as possible in every other way."

When he was a trainee, Dr. Abdel-Qadir noticed many treated for heart disease also had other medical issues, making it "much less straightforward to figure out how to do the right thing."

"I had already started thinking about developing a research career focusing on people with heart disease, and its interplay with other illnesses," he says.

During his last rotation, in medical oncology, he saw how treatments for patients with cancer are complicated by concerns about heart disease — and, in particular, women with breast cancer. He saw oncologists deliver different advice and treatment: some scaled back chemo having assessed the patient as a high-risk for heart disease, and others presumed similar patients to be low-risk, with less potential for heart-related complications.

"That's when it clicked for me, in terms of where I want to focus the early part of my research career," says Dr. Abdel-Qadir.

'If I wanted to do research myself, I needed to get more training'

It was during the end of his cardiology training when Dr. Abdel-Qadir solidified his plans for the future: he decided to become a clinician-scientist, delving into how heart disease relates to other illnesses.

"Physicians are like pilots: we're well-trained to use the data to fly the plane and provide good patient care, but are not trained in the engineering needed to develop a new plane," he explains. "If I wanted to do research myself, I needed to get more training."

That's why Dr. Abdel-Qadir decided to go back to school: this time, for a PhD in clinical epidemiology.

Can we detect heart disease earlier, so that we're not continuing to damage women's hearts, is one of the biggest and most challenging questions he's hoping to answer.

"As I ask questions like this, and I start seeing patients, I feel privileged and lucky to be a physician who can stand on both sides [research and clinical]," he says.

And as his career and research continues to soar, Dr. Abdel-Qadir remains thoughtful and grateful for his mentors who guided him to where he is today, especially and including Dr. Tu, who was a leader in the cardiovascular research community.

"If I had the ability to dedicate this [award] to someone, it would be him," says Dr. Abdel-Qadi, "along with the rest of my thesis committee, my parents, and my wife." ​

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