Dr. Camille Hancock Friesen
Tackling heart disease from both ends of the spectrum: Dr. Camille Hancock Friesen wants heart-healthy kids and longer-term transplants
While cardiac surgeon and researcher Dr. Camille Hancock Friesen is searching for ways to make heart transplants last longer, she hopes to head off a high demand for transplants in the future by increasing children's physical fitness now.
"One-third of the children in Atlantic Canada are overweight or obese, and we are seeing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other key cardiovascular risk factors in children," says Dr. Hancock Friesen, chief of the IWK Health Centre's cardiac surgery program and president of the Maritime Heart Centre. "These trends will have devastating consequences as these children grow up... unless something happens to alter their fate."
More physical activity in schools is what Dr. Hancock Friesen says has to happen. That's why she and her colleagues at Dalhousie University, the IWK and the Maritime Heart Centre have launched Heart Healthy Kids (H2K), a research project that's training kids to be physical activity mentors and role models for their peers at school. "We want to harness the power of peer influence to inspire kids to be more physically active," she says. "Our initial pilot study showed that peer mentoring increased activity levels – as measured by pedometer steps at school – by 17 percent."
The researchers are now analyzing physical activity, body mass index and fitness data from a three-year study involving 900 children and 10 schools. Half of the children received standard physical education, while the other half took part in fun physical activity challenges led by peer mentors. "Ultimately, we would like to see trained peer mentors and daily physical activity in all schools," says Dr. Hancock Friesen.
At the far end of the spectrum, Dr. Hancock Friesen is exploring the immune response that causes heart transplant patients' bodies to eventually reject the donor's heart, in spite of immune suppression drugs. Her goal is to find a way to interfere with this process so heart transplant recipients can live longer and healthier lives with their donated hearts.