Feb. 24, 2020
She's got heart
Dr. Anne Gillis, MD, a Professor in the Department of Cardiac Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine, has had an amazing career spanning more than 30 years. She is known internationally for her numerous impacts on the field of cardiac electrophysiology, a subspecialty of cardiology focused on heart rhythm problems.
The clinician-scientist has been recognized numerous times by her peers. Notably, she was the 2018 recipient of the Canadian Cardiovascular Society’s Achievement Award, given in recognition of a lifetime of outstanding contributions. Gillis became interested in cardiovascular pharmacology during her second year of medical school at Dalhousie in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Her passion for cardiology, and in the then-emerging subspecialty of electrophysiology, grew with exposure and was clinched when she completed an elective in the Coronary Care Unit of Victoria General Hospital in Halifax. Attracted by the research environment, the people, and the proximity to hiking and skiing in the Rocky Mountains, Gillis came to the University of Calgary in 1986 and hasn’t looked back.
An avid researcher, Gillis has published more than 200 articles and book chapters. She is internationally recognized for her contributions to the understanding of the mechanisms behind cardiac arrhythmias and for new treatments.
She has conducted groundbreaking research on the cellular mechanisms of cardiac defibrillation and clinical studies defining the role of atrial pacing for prevention and management of atrial fibrillation (AF), the most common arrhythmia. Patients with AF may experience extreme fatigue, breathlessness and dizziness. They also have an increased risk of sudden cardiac death.
Recently Gillis has worked alongside her colleague, Dr. Wayne Chen, to investigate the role of calcium triggered activity and the ryanodine receptor (the microscopic gateway that allows the heart to beat) in atrial fibrillation.
Gillis, who maintains her clinical practice, has also contributed to major innovations in health care delivery. She developed standards for nurse clinician-led device clinics and developed the first AF clinic in Canada. Both have become models for care across the nation.
In 2004, Gillis led the first Canadian initiative to introduce remote monitoring of Implantable cardioverter defibrillators and pacemakers, which makes life easier for patients because they don’t have to attend a clinic to have their heart monitored.
Gillis is also a respected leader, with a number of important roles under her belt. Notably, in 2012 to 2013, she served as the president of the Heart Rhythm Society, a respected organization that represents medical, allied health and science professionals specializing in cardiac rhythm disorders from more than 70 countries. She has also held numerous positions on the Canadian Cardiovascular Society Academy board, including vice president and president.
Gillis has significantly contributed to health-care guidelines and position papers, which recommend the best treatments for patients based on the latest discoveries.
In 1996, Gillis was the first woman in UCalgary’s Dept. of Medicine to be promoted to professor. She played an instrumental role in the development and growth of the Libin Institute as deputy director, a position she held until late 2019.
Gillis says her career was driven by a desire to improve outcomes for patients, adding she was fortunate to be on an amazing team of researchers and clinicians like Drs. Brent Mitchell, George Wyse, Henry Duff, Katherine Kavanagh and Derek Exner. She is also thankful for support from Alberta Innovates (formerly the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research), which allowed her to carve out research time from her busy clinical practice. As she prepares to retire, Gillis can’t help but think about the amazing changes she has witnessed in her field.
“There have been tremendous advances in technology over the past three decades that have dramatically improved patient outcomes,” she says, noting some examples include devices like implantable cardioverter defibrillators and catheter ablation, which can cure patients with irregular heartbeats.
Looking to the future, Gillis anticipates ever-increasing technology advancements that will allow for more precision diagnostics and treatment of arrhythmias.
“We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg of precision medicine in our field,” she says. “There’s room for excitement.”
She anticipates the Libin Institute will maintain its world-class standing in the field, pending adequate resources.
“I hope [electrophysiology] will remain a core,” she says. “We don’t have as much of an opportunity to recruit scientists due to budget constraints. We need ongoing resources.”