Research Aims to Help Heart Patients Breathe Easier

Goal is to treat respiratory muscle damage

Alicia Walczak

Breathing difficulties are the most common complaint among people living with heart failure. By learning more about the heart-lung connection, University of Guelph-Humber kinesiology student Alicia Walczak hopes to help improve the lives of heart failure patients.

The fourth-year student helped assemble the top poster at the Ontario Kinesiology Association annual conference in Toronto this fall. She works in the lab of Prof. Jeremy Simpson, Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences.

His research team studies how respiratory muscle dysfunction affects breathing – and, in turn, the effect on exercise tolerance – in people with heart failure.

“It’s the biggest complaint from patients with heart failure,” says Simpson, who belongs to a U of G heart research group and teaches in the Guelph-Humber kinesiology program. “Our goal is not necessarily to treat heart failure but to improve quality of life by developing treatments that prevent or reverse respiratory muscle dysfunction in patients with heart failure.”

This past summer, Walczak worked in Simpson’s Guelph lab under a new funding program called the U of G-H research grant fund.

She compared samples of diaphragm tissue from healthy mice and mice induced to develop heart failure. She also helped set up a histology lab for microscopic studies of tissue.

“Histology tells you pathology,” says Simpson, explaining that this work will help him learn more about how respiratory muscle dysfunction occurs as heart failure develops. Ultimately, that might help in designing drug targets in patients with heart failure – what he calls a complex “multi-organ disease.”

Before beginning her degree, Walczak worked in Toronto as a fitness instructor and personal trainer. Earlier, she had completed a Humber College fitness program. “I always want to learn how exercise relates to disease.”

She now divides her time between Guelph-Humber and the Guelph campus.