Barbara Ballermann’s kidney research, a passion she discovered as a medical student, will take the next step thanks to funding from the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Also receiving Grants-in-Aid from the Heart and Stroke Foundation are Christian Beaulieu, Jason Dyck, James Hammond, Evangelos Michelakis, Frances Plane, Howard Young and Dawei Zheng. Georg Schmolzer receives a New Investigator Award.
Nine members of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry will see their research efforts boosted thanks to new funding from the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation Grant-in-Aid program provides operating funds to support important, pertinent, novel research in the areas of heart disease and stroke. The grants promote discovery, exploration and innovation across all areas of health research.
One of the researchers receiving funding is Barbara Ballermann, a professor in the Division of Nephrology and chair of the Department of Medicine. As a medical student Ballermann found the kidneys fascinating. She was amazed to learn that our kidneys filter and re-process about 180 litres of body fluid each day, roughly equivalent to over 700 cups of water. When she realized that kidney disease and kidney failure very often starts with the filtration function breaking down, she thought by studying this she could help patients suffering from kidney disease. Ballermann narrowed her research focus on a cell type in the kidneys called glomerular endothelial cells, because other researchers had not included them in their studies. Ballermann was the first person to propagate these cells in tissue culture.
Fast forward to present day and Ballermann is still focusing her research on the kidney filtering units, which are small capillaries called glomeruli. Blood flows into these tiny sieve-liked capillaries, water and salts pass through the sieve, and bigger proteins and cells stay in the blood. It’s this filtering apparatus that prevents proteins from leaking into the urine. It is astonishing that our kidneys do this huge amount of filtration work day in and day out, usually without getting clogged and without breaking down, for a whole lifetime.
A few years ago, Ballermann’s lab found that a particular protein they were studying (called CLiC5A) is present in this filtering unit in huge amounts, much more than anywhere else in the body. The only other place where this same protein is found in large amount is the inner ear.
Ballermann wanted to know the minute details of how the CLiC5A protein protects the kidneys under normal conditions. She also questioned what happens when someone has an illness or disease and the protein is not present. The lab found that in cases where lab models had high blood pressure and were lacking this protein, the kidney filtering units would disintegrate. CLiC5A strengthens the capillaries so they can resist the effects of blood pressure over a lifetime of hard work, and that it is especially important in people with high blood pressure, also called hypertension.
“We know hypertension damages kidneys, for instance in people with diabetes and almost any other kind of kidney disease. If you have hypertension it’s a real problem for the kidneys, and we can show that this CLiC5A protein is really critical in maintaining the structure especially in people whose blood pressure is too high,” says Ballermann.
"Many of us have an important job, but have passion on the side. Perhaps you play the violin and are good at it. I have an administrative job as chair of this department. (...) But my science... well, that’s my violin." —Barbara Ballermann
A lift to take the next steps
The Heart and Stroke Foundation grant will allow Ballermann to take her research a step further. Ballermann’s lab will explore how the structure of the kidney is controlled by a molecule called Rac1.
“We found that our protein called CLiC5A causes the Rac1 protein to jump into action. But what we observed was a little contrary to what some other researchers have reported,” says Ballermann. “We found that CLiC5A stimulated Rac1 and that you need both CLiC5A and Rac1 to protect the kidney from high blood pressure. Others have found that if you stimulate Rac1 too much, you can actually destroy the kidney.”
“The grant is all about saying, ‘we don’t think it’s that simple’ and it depends on where the Rac1 goes inside the cell, and that CLiC5A orchestrates where Rac1 ends up. We think as long as active Rac1 is put in the right location by CLiC5A, it will strengthen the cell, but if it gets loose, it can be damaging.”
Recently, Ballermann’s lab has been able to graduate three PhD students and a master’s student. Without the Heart and Stroke Foundation grant, she would not have funding for a student to carry on the work. The grant will allow Ballermann to have two graduate students to help on the project.
“So in addition to finding out how this stuff works in the kidney, and how this protein protects the kidney from high blood pressure, it also allows me to help graduate students train and hopefully get their PhD or go to medical school. These young people will be making their own discoveries for medical science in the future,” says Ballermann.
This is very important for Ballermann, who enjoys training young scientists and having an influence on their career.
A love for science
Science is truly Ballermann’s passion.
“Many of us have an important job, but have passion on the side. Perhaps you play the violin and are good at it. I have an administrative job as chair of this department. It is a big and important job that I enjoy immensely. But my science, well, that’s my violin,” she says.
Balancing her research with her duties as chair of the Department of Medicine does not come without sacrifice. Ballermann gave up her clinical work in order to make time for her lab. She felt that no one else was doing her research, but that by giving up her clinical work, she could free up some work for very good young physicians.
Ballermann is extremely thankful for the support of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Division of Nephrology, her various faculty collaborators and her grad students. She’s especially appreciative of her research assistant Dr. Laiji Li who runs her lab. “I could not live without him, I’ve told him that a thousand times,” says Ballermann.
Ballermann’s study is just one area of research that will be greatly improved thanks to the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s support. Also receiving funding from the Heart and Stroke Foundation are Christian Beaulieu, Jason Dyck, James Hammond, Evangelos Michelakis, Frances Plane, Georg Schmolzer, Howard Young and Dawei Zheng. This funding will allow these leaders to continue their research into various aspects of health care that will impact the health of Canadians through prevention, treatment and recovery.
Meet our funding partner
The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s mission is to prevent disease, save lives and promote recovery. Their vision is a world where Canadians live healthy lives free of heart disease and stroke. They are committed to have the greatest tangible impact in improving the health of Canadian families every day. Find out more at www.heartandstroke.com.