With biggest grant in its history, uOttawa launching a world-first vision to transform brain-heart health

Faculty of Medicine
Research and innovation
Faculty of Medicine

By David McFadden

Research Writer, University of Ottawa

Brain heart
In Canada alone, one person dies from heart disease, stroke or vascular cognitive impairment every five minutes. With this investment, the goal is nothing less than revealing the underlying intricacies and links of brain-heart conditions that will lead to better treatments and save many lives.

It’s not by luck or chance that the University of Ottawa is receiving the largest grant in its 175-year history to lead a first-of-its-kind medical research initiative. Chalk it up to vision, determination, and world-class talent.

Step by step, brick by brick, our uOttawa Faculty of Medicine community has collectively built a critical mass of expertise, infrastructure, and partnerships to be in a leadership position to unravel the hidden links between two critically important vital organs: the brain and the heart.

Now, roughly eight years after the broad outlines of a novel framework to reveal these connections were first envisioned, uOttawa and its partners are receiving a $109-million-dollar grant to launch the Brain-Heart Interconnectome (BHI). This transformative grant is among 11 large-scale research initiatives awarded through the recently announced Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) by the federal government of Canada.

What is the Brain-Heart Interconnectome? Imagine a multi-disciplinary network of top-flight researchers, dedicated patient partners and other collaborators, and one boundary-pushing vision: to forever transform health outcomes for brain-heart diseases by achieving fluency in the two-way dialogue between these two organs.

Ultimately, it’s aimed at nothing less than revealing the underlying intricacies and links of brain-heart conditions, and changing the trajectory of how they are detected, treated and prevented.

That’s a big deal. Across the globe, brain and heart diseases cause immense suffering to patients, their families and communities, and strain overwhelmed health systems. In Canada, one person dies from heart disease, stroke or vascular cognitive impairment every five minutes. The economic cost of heart disease, stroke, and dementia alone is over $55 billion per year in this country.

Ruth Slack
Dr. Ruth Slack

Leading this world-first vision are its two primary architects, internationally renowned uOttawa Faculty of Medicine professors Dr. Ruth Slack and Dr. Peter Liu.

Dr. Slack’s cutting-edge work at the University of Ottawa’s Brain and Mind Research Institute (uOBMRI) has given hope to many patients affected by brain damage, while Dr. Liu’s innovations at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute (uOHI) have greatly benefited numerous patients suffering from heart failure and cardiac inflammation. They are eager to drive exploration and new discoveries with the best minds from diverse fields as part of the BHI, which will join researchers from across uOttawa and affiliated hospital research institutes with teams from McGill University, the University of Saskatchewan and others.

Dr. Peter Liu

“We’ve been working very hard to build momentum and capacity. And now with this highly competitive grant, we’re ready to launch this brand new approach bringing together the best of science, the best of patient care, the best of our health systems,” says Dr. Liu, chief scientific officer and vice president of research at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

Dr. Slack, director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute, says the BHI will challenge conventional thinking in modern medicine. Most brain-heart conditions evolve together and have common risk factors, she says, but the medical profession has treated them with separate specialties and as separate fields of study.

“At the University of Ottawa, we have developed so much strength in brain and mind health and in heart health. And our concept of bringing the heart and brain together and understanding them holistically is entirely novel. It’s really the only network that is treating brain-heart conditions as a whole and looking at new models of care,” she says.

For many years, medicine has been compartmentalized. Specialties were created and disciplines were carved into groups and subgroups. Because of this historical fragmentation, knowledge is too often gained in isolation. Findings are not readily transferable from one discipline to another, and patients end up losing.

Drs. Slack and Liu argue that this siloed approach has too often led to brain and heart conditions being diagnosed too late. Because early detection can lead to timely interventions, urgently transcending conventional barriers and paving the way for a novel approach to research will create results that will have direct impact on the lives and care of persons with brain-heart disorders.

Dr. Liu says the Interconnectome – which will eventually be headquartered at uOttawa’s Advanced Medical Research Centre (AMRC) – will capture the boundless possibilities that can be achieved through multidisciplinary collaboration and cutting edge technologies.

“That's what really gives the power to the program. We're just not using one single approach, but we're going to transform brain-heart health care by taking multiple collaborative approaches, including indigenous ways of knowing,” he says. “It will be amazing what we can do together.”

The massive federal grant that is making the BHI’s launch possible is not only major recognition of our research community’s expertise in brain-heart health, but the funding will help train the first generation of research leaders in “interconnectome” science and brain-heart connected research, according to Dr. Slack.

“Because this is such an urgent problem, it's truly critical to train the next generation of researchers now. How we teach and research brain and heart health will be completely transformed by this program,” she says.

In years to come, there will be no shortage of compelling stories of just how the BHI’s research breakthroughs are impacting the diagnosis, treatment, and overall health and well-being of individuals in Canada and across the globe.

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The University Of Ottawa Brain And Mind Research Institute Development Fund financially supports the priorities of the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute.