i2eye with Senator Wilbert Keon

i2eye with Senator Wilbert Keon

Keon sees a strong future for Canadian heart research
May 1, 2007
Medical doctor, heart researcher and surgeon, first Canadian to implant an artificial heart, founder of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, Officer of the Order of Canada—there’s no doubt Wilbert Joseph Keon has one impressive resumé. In the 1960s, he pioneered a technique that restored blood flow during an acute heart attack. His then-dissenting research was called down by the medical establishment. Fast forward to present day. The technique is now a standard life-saving practice. In 1990, while CEO of the Heart Institute, Keon was asked to join the Senate. He has shown his mettle in politics as a passionate advocate for improved health care. Life in the operating room and in the political arena have given Keon an insiders’ perspective on the world of Canadian heart research that few can match. InnovationCanada.ca asked Senator Keon to share that perspective.

InnovationCanada.ca (IC): What motivated you to become a heart researcher and a heart surgeon?

Senator Keon (SK): In medical school, during my first exposure to pathology and in looking at why so many cardiac deaths were occurring, it just seemed to me that most of these problems were solvable. And I was smitten. I just felt we could have a powerful impact on all this within a professional lifetime. There just wasn’t any doubt in my mind about what I was going to do.

IC: You’ve had a long and distinguished history of heart research in Canada and worldwide. How do you feel about the state of heart research in Canada right now?

SK: I’m very, very pleased with what I see. I think that the knowledge platform that we have now is unprecedented. We have a tremendous number of brilliant scientists. Our major problem is sustaining them, particularly with operating grants. The research is expensive to do, but there is no question that the science platform in the cardiovascular area is better than it’s ever been in our history.

IC: How does it compare to what’s going on internationally? Are we leaders or are we playing catch-up?

SK: We are definitely leaders. America, I think, has always been the leader. They have always had huge investments. But, for the first time, they did not increase their investments last year. We are gradually increasing our investments for research. And, for cardiovascular research, in addition to the expenditure from agencies like CIHR, CFI, and other government agencies, we have philanthropy like the Heart and Stroke Foundation and other NGOs that are assisting in the overall scenario. So, it’s a pretty healthy situation.

IC: What type of heart research is being done in Canada, specifically the kind that really excites you and grabs your attention?

SK: There’s a very broad base of research being done, right from very, very basic nanotechnology to molecular biology to genetics, especially now using the tools of gene chip technology*. And of course we have excellent cardiovascular clinical trials.

*Nanotechnology—which involves atom-sized compounds that can perform various functions—has been touted as a means of performing surgery from within the body. Extremely tiny robots may someday be deployed to vanquish problems like heart disease. Genetic work is already altering the world of medicine. Some disease occurs because of abnormal gene activity. Deciphering the order of the basic units of our genetic material has lead to the development of gene chips—material with thousands of bits of genetic material stuck to its surface. When a human tissue sample is added to the chip, the active or dormant genes in the tissue can be determined, which can help pinpoint the problem.

IC: Does heart research in Canada involve lifestyle issues? There is great concern about people’s fitness and how that might affect their future.

SK: Huge, huge. As a matter of fact, what I’m doing right now in Canada is focusing on the determinants of health. Most are not related to the health care system at all. The gospel I’m preaching now is to try to get out in front of the problem, because many diseases are preventable. Diseases like heart disease and cancer in young people are just tragic any way you look at them, because they are largely preventable. They are very expensive when they affect a young person—they shorten the life expectancy of that person, they sometimes eliminate the productivity of that person, and it’s just a terrible problem all the way around. If you can prevent the diseases, that individual can live a normal life cycle in good health and can be a major contributor to society. Nowhere can we affect prevention outcomes better than in the cardiovascular sector.

IC: With research, some aspects can go from the lab to the bedside quickly, while technology such as the gene chip, for example, may take awhile to have practical applications [such as predicting the risk of heart disease, identifying heart problems in people who do not yet have symptoms, and discovering new cures for heart problems]. Can we say the same for heart research?

SK: Oh sure. For example, research into cardiac drugs is a huge part of the research sector. The actual discovery of an effective drug or chemical in the laboratory is only the first stage; then the research has to be carried through all the stages of approval and commercialization and so forth. All of this can take 25 years or so. These things don’t happen overnight. The public, I think, doesn’t understand that sometimes.

IC: One last question. It’s fair to describe you as a pioneer in heart research in Canada and around the world. How does that make you feel?

SK: Actually, it makes me feel really good. It’s interesting; I get a lot of attention for the work I did in artificial hearts and transplantation but I think the greatest contribution I made started when I was at the labs in Harvard [and continued] when I came back here to Ottawa. I had discovered in the laboratory how to put a patient on a heart-lung machine and restore blood flow in an acute heart attack, which was heresy, absolute heresy. People thought this couldn’t be done. I remember presenting my results to the American Heart Association in the early ’70s and most of the pundits just thought I was crazy. Now, this is standard treatment.