The Next Generation: Spotlight on Rebecca Sullivan

Rebecca Sullivan is a trainee working with Dr. Savita Dhanvantari, Lawson Scientist, in her lab at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and a PhD candidate at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Western University.

The research

Heart disease is a leading cause of death in Canada. Earlier detection could save thousands of lives and help personalize treatment. 

When heart disease is suspected, patients receive a blood test and a combination of imaging methods for diagnosis. Currently used biomarkers can be unreliable and heart disease only shows on imaging methods after functional changes to the organ. 

My research focuses on discovering a biomarker that can detect heart disease at earlier stages. 

I am currently studying a new biomarker called growth hormone secretagogue receptor (GHSR). I am using heart samples from patients who have undergone a heart transplant or open heart surgery with fluorescent imaging agents, and am also using a combined PET/MRI machine at St. Joseph’s Hospital to see cellular and physical changes in the heart muscle. This combined imaging method allows our research team to understand what is happening in heart disease and work towards developing methods of earlier diagnosis. 

Hospital-based research

There is so much happening behind the scenes that patients don’t see. It takes years to develop and test a new drug or method and put it into practice. It also takes a lot of people and collaboration.

It also takes collaboration. Being in a hospital, a researcher can collaborate with physicians in multiple areas and scientists who work in areas of biology, physics and math, to name a few. Having different perspectives allows researchers to tackle problems differently. 

Hospital-based research allows me to collaborate with clinicians, scientists and patients to translate research to care. 

Patient impact

For my research, collaboration is essential as the samples are collected during heart surgery and brought back to the research lab. By studying these samples, we’re working to better understand heart disease and improve diagnosis. The ultimate goal is to translate our findings back to patient care.

Career journey

I earned a degree in Honours Specialization in Biochemistry and Biotechnology from Laurier University. I became interested in research when I started using different lab techniques and asking questions. These experiences made me curious to see what questions I can ask, how I can solve these issues, and help people by doing this research. Clinical translational research, where I can see what I’m doing in a lab is leading to helping patients, is the perfect fit for me. 

My first introduction to research was when I completed a fourth year thesis looking at how the cellular membrane is designed and formed. I was also a summer student at the London Health Science Centre’s Victoria Hospital. There I looked at a multi-drug resistant bacteria that is difficult to detect and treat. I tried to find the smallest number of bacteria in a human sample that the lab could detect to target treatment. I also looked at the fastest method to detect this bacteria.

I then started my Master’s Degree with Dr. Savita Dhanvantari at St. Joseph’s Hospital, part of St. Joseph’s Health Care London, and quickly transferred to the PhD stream. Transferring allowed me to do more in-depth research over a longer period of time. 

The next step

I would like to learn more about different types of imaging methods, how they work and the new techniques happening locally and globally. Advancements in imaging have created opportunities to personalize detection and treatment of diseases. This has profound impacts for patients and physicians. 

Through my PhD, I’ve learned I love to mentor people. I want to continue my own research and pursue academia. I love teaching students and seeing their progress, and want to help foster their interest for research. 

I want to keep my research focused on heart disease and heart failure because it affects a large population. I think there are many questions left to ask and be answered in this area. I want to be a part of these discoveries. 

Empowering young scientists

I urge female scientists to mentor female trainees and empower them to seek leadership positions. I’ve had a great mentor who’s encouraged me to push my boundaries and helped foster my enthusiasm. 

Mentors can make the difference in a trainee’s career.

Many times, young women in science are not pushed to continue with their science career because there are currently a limited number of women in leadership. I want to show the trainees I mentor that you can move up, be heard and reach leadership positions. 

Media coverage:

CTV News - Biomarker could bring earlier detection of heart disease: Lawson research