March 10, 2017

Cardiac research nets Holly Mewhort prestigious heart association award

Libin Institute researcher wins same international award as mentor won 14 years ago
Holly Mewhort and her mentor, Paul Fedak, have both received the prestigious Vivien Thomas Young Investigator Award for their cardiac research — 14 years apart.

Holly Mewhort and her mentor, Paul Fedak have both received the same award — 14 years apart.

Numerous people may say they want to grow up to be a heart surgeon, but very few actually achieve that goal. Holly Mewhort, MD, PhD, is one who has done so. And that’s not the only thing Mewhort, who is part of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta’s cardiac surgical residency program, has accomplished.

She has also excelled in basic and translational research. She recently received international recognition for her work in cardiac research, winning the Vivien Thomas Young Investigator Award from the American Heart Association, a prestige award given to early investigators who are focusing on fundamental and applied surgical research.

That research was done as part of her PhD program, which she completed in June 2016 under the supervision of Libin Institute’s Paul Fedak, MD, PhD. Fedak is a cardiac surgeon and basic/translational researcher who directs the Marlene and Don Campbell Family Cardiac Research Laboratory at the Cumming School of Medicine.  

Research shows biomaterial can trigger healing in damaged heart muscle

Mewhort’s research investigates the use of biomaterial in regenerating and restoring heart tissue in patients who had previously suffered a heart attack. The material, CorMatrix-ECM, is a connective tissue matrix surgically applied to damaged heart tissue to trigger healing. Mewhort describes the material as providing the scaffolding that holds cells together and influences their behaviour and survival.

Her research in this area began four years ago in the lab and has had great success. In preclinical trials, the project has shown that this bio-material can restore function to damaged heart muscle by promoting the formation of new blood vessel networks — a process called vasculogenesis.  

The investigators have completed a pilot clinical trial, which saw the patch applied to the heart tissue of a handful of patients during coronary bypass surgery. The results haven’t been published yet, but the data looks promising.

Mewhort is thrilled to be part of a research project that has been successfully translated from bench to bedside. “If it works at the clinical trial level, this could be a game-changer for patients who have suffered a heart attack,” she says, noting until now, there hasn’t been a way of restoring function to damaged heart tissue in those patients.

Cardiac surgery research program is 'cutting edge'

It’s also exciting for Mewhort to win the same award her mentor, Dr. Paul Fedak, received 14 years ago. He was also a cardiac surgery trainee pursuing a PhD, investigating stem cell regeneration of heart tissue. The fact that two researchers connected with the University of Calgary earned the same international award is impressive, as competition is stiff. Past winners have studied at such institutions as the University of Toronto, Duke and Stanford.

Fedak, who studied at the University of Toronto, was recruited to come to Calgary about a decade ago and has since set up a cutting-edge cardiac surgery research program. Mewhort is the first PhD graduate of his laboratory. As her mentor, Fedak, who, besides being an academic researcher is a full-time clinical heart surgeon, is pleased to see the program turning out well-respected young academic surgical scientists.

He says Mewhort’s award fulfils another career goal, explaining that when he won the Vivien Thomas Young Investigator Award his desire became to see one of his students do the same. For Fedak, the award signifies the coming-of-age of academic cardiac surgeon training in Calgary.

“This shows us how far we have come with our program,” he says.

Receiving her mentor’s praise is a big deal for Mewhort, as Fedak was one of the reasons she chose to pursue her surgery training and PhD in Calgary. Mewhort’s future looks bright as she continues her residency in cardiac surgery on campus with the ultimate goal of having an active surgical and research career, much like her mentor.