Sept. 5, 2019

Protein offers hope

Researcher presents his work on naturally occurring protein at prestigious European Society of Cardiology Late Breaking Science Sessions
O'Brien lab
Researcher works in O'Brien lab Dawn Smithv/Libin Institute

Dr. Ed O'Brien

Dr. Ed O’Brien’s research is creating a buzz.

On September, 3, 2019, the University of Calgary cardiologist and researcher gave a presentation in Paris at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress—the largest cardiology conference in the world.

O’Brien, MD, was featured at the Congress’s coveted Late Breaking Science sessions, which showcase the most awaited science breakthroughs at the congress and give attendees the chance to discuss ground-breaking work in the field of cardiology.

This was the third time in the past five years O’Brien presented during the prestigious sessions, and the most rewarding. That’s because of the potential impact of his latest research on a new immunotherapy with potential to treat heart disease in post-menopausal women.

“One third of all women – some 55 million in North America alone- are post menopausal, and there is a real need to understand how to manage the increase in heart disease that occurs when women go through menopause,” says O’Brien, noting that more women die of heart disease than all cancers combined.

“Our new insights into the use of a Heat Shock Protein (HSP27) as a vaccine that can lower your cholesterol level, reduce inflammation and reduce the development of hardening of the arteries post-menopause is really exciting.”

O’Brien, a professor in the departments of Cardiac Sciences and Medicine, and member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute at UCalgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, has been working on HSP27 for more than 15 years in an attempt to understand the protective role of the naturally occurring protein in the body.

According to O’Brien, it appears that estrogens regulate the synthesis and release of HSP27 from cells. The O’Brien lab theorizes that HSP27 is an important downstream ‘foot soldier’ for estrogen that is lost when women go through menopause, which typically occurs between the ages of 45-55 years when the levels of reproductive hormones like estrogen and progesterone plummet.

Many women experience post-menopausal symptoms that range from hot flashes and sleep pattern disturbances to changes in skin appearance and weight gain. However, the most worrisome change for women after menopause is the rapid increase in heart disease – particularly since it is not well studied and there are no specific treatments for it.

According to O’Brien, HSP27 immunotherapy not only offers hope to keep women’s hearts healthier, it also appears to have an overall wellness benefit throughout the body. Whether it will provide benefit for other common symptoms post-menopause (such as hot flashes) is yet to be determined.

“While HSP27 is not a hormone, per se, it is unlikely to remedy all of the ailments associated with menopause,” he says. “But in our studies of mice with high HSP27 levels – they live longer, are more active and their skin heals better. We think that this therapy may not be specific for just post-menopausal women, but also as a wellness treatment for a variety of chronic degenerative conditions in both men and women.”