A Q&A with Dr. Kim Connelly, the new executive director of the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science
Bouts of dizziness paired with a fast heartbeat. Colour drains from your face and nausea sinks in. Without immediate nourishment to bring up your blood sugar, vision blurs as your body starts to seize. You may pass out. Irreversible brain damage becomes a possibility. These are the symptoms of hypoglycemia – a reaction to a drop in blood sugar in people who have diabetes.
While he was studying cardiology at the University of Melbourne in Australia, Dr. Kim Connelly watched a good friend living with type 1 diabetes experience these symptoms time and time again. As a medical student interested in cardiology because of its potential to change lives, Dr. Connelly was drawn to better understanding the impact of the disease that affects insulin regulation, and thus sugar regulation, on the heart. He wanted to find solutions.
“Unfortunately diabetes is a disease is that’s best exemplified by its complications and the majority of those impact the cardiovascular system,” he said.
In 2006, he moved to Toronto, a city renowned for diabetes and heart research and the place where insulin was discovered. He has been a scientist at the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science and a cardiologist at St. Michael’s ever since. Now, Dr. Connelly has taken on the role of executive director of the Keenan Research Centre, where he hopes to encourage collaboration between scientists like the ones he’s benefitted from throughout his career.
We sat down with Dr. Connelly to learn more about his research and his vision for the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science.
What first drew you to the field of cardiology both in medicine and science?
My dad was an ear, nose and throat specialist and I used to do ward rounds with him starting at the age of six. I was always in the hospitals with him so I always wanted to do medicine, there was never actually thought about doing anything else.
I realized cardiology was a good specialty because there was a strong research infrastructure to be able to ask questions and actually answer them. The impact was potentially massive because heart disease is still the number one killer worldwide.
On day one at university, I met my buddy who had diabetes and complications of diabetes, and it became clear that this was a big problem for which we had very few options. I saw a good opportunity to link two important areas – cardiology and diabetes – and come up with new therapies.
What areas has your research focused on since then?
I started to study heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, which occurs when the lower left chamber of the heart is not properly able to fill with blood and this results in less blood being pumped out to the body. It’s one of the most common issues in cardiology. I had worked on two drugs to treat this and both were pulled before trials in humans.
So I kept studying diabetes and the heart, and decided to start using MRI and echocardiograms in order to image the heart. This way I would be able to identify problems in the heart before they cause symptoms, and use this as a way to develop new treatments and prove they work.
I have also been interested in stem cells and regenerative cell-based therapies to improve cardiac and renal dysfunction as a result of diabetes. In my preclinical lab, we study the mechanisms of heart disease so we can develop new therapies with the pharmaceutical industry and we’ve got some of our own that we’re developing.
How does your clinical work inform your research and vice versa?
There’s no point in developing research or a solution if no one uses it, so I try to look at how we can translate that through to patient care in order to benefit the patient. That’s why I think the clinician-scientist role is helpful because I still see patients in the clinic and try to make sure research is relevant and connected to them.
For example, when I was researching new medications, I realized, we had a big problem in that we had well proven therapies available to treat patients, but I kept getting referred patients that were not on these lifesaving therapies. That’s when I got interested in guidelines and knowledge translation. This is about actually understanding how to help more patients, by both educating doctors and patients. This fits in with my “bench to bedside and beyond” idea.
What are you most excited about in your new role at the Keenan Research Centre?
Definitely the opportunity this presents. I’ve been at this for 13 years or so and I’ve done a lot of work across multiple research areas and sectors and it gives me a fair bit of insight into the whole institution and how we could reduce silos, encouraging people to work together. Over the years, lots of good collaborative opportunities have come up and I’ve realized you need to have a seat at the table to encourage those and enact change.
What does this new appointment mean for the Keenan Research Centre and research at Unity Health?
What I’ve really seen in my career is that the divide between preclinical and clinical research has become much, much broader and we need reign that in.
Ultimately every new treatment is based on the fundamentals of disease and the basic science behind it – the two streams are equally as important. As we’ve seen diseases change, we recognize that the methods, processes, and clinically important endpoints change, as do the therapies required to help people. In order to develop new treatments, we need to understand the biology – and that’s what basic science does. Then, we need to translate those findings to see if they help our understanding of human disease. This is my goal – to facilitate basic science, bridge the gap and help move these into the clinic, and support getting proven therapies to patients. In that way we can help patients lead better, longer lives.
No one type of research is more important than the other, they all have a place in this big picture and hopefully I can do my little bit in just bringing all things together.
By: Ana Gajic