Oct. 25, 2021

Former Libin trainee receives national award for original research on cardiovascular medicine

Sean Kang's article on his master's project gains international attention
Sean Kang
Former Libin trainee, Sean Kang, has been honoured with a prestigious award

Sean Kang, who received his master’s degree in cardiovascular and respiratory sciences from the Cumming School of Medicine in 2018, has received a prestigious award.  

He is honoured and surprised to be selected for the Canadian Cardiovascular Society’s 2021 Robert E. Beamish Award, presented annually to the first author of an original research article published during the preceding three years in The Canadian Journal of Cardiology and judged to have the greatest potential impact on cardiovascular medicine.

Kang’s article, Direct Effects of Empagliflozin on Extracellular Matrix Remodelling in Human Cardiac Myofibroblasts: Novel Translational Clues to Explain EMPA-REG OUTCOME Results, was published in 2019 and was based on his master’s project, completed under the supervision of clinician-scientist Dr. Paul Fedak, MD, PhD.

“I am incredibly humbled and honoured, not to mention surprised, at receiving the award,” says Kang, who now works as a research associate supporting clinical research in cardiac surgery. “I attribute this largely to the mentorship I received from my mentor Dr. Paul Fedak, as well as other mentors that supported me, and the overall collaborative culture in the lab.”

Kang’s project focused on a new diabetes medication that was found to have a protective impact on the cardiovascular system. The article explains how the medication, empagliflozin, impacts the cardiac fibroblasts, cardiac cells that produce scar tissue following injury to the heart, such as a heart attack. The scar tissue is initially laid to prevent the heart tissue from rupturing, a possibility because of the excessive force generated by the heart on damaged tissue.  

Although the scar tissue is initially formed to help protect the heart, unregulated production of it over time can become a problem as it results in stiffening of the heart and increases the risk of heart failure.

Kang said it was known that empagliflozin had an impact on the heart, but prior to his work, researchers were unclear whether the drug worked on cardiac fibroblasts. 

“It turns out this drug tones down some of the activation and scar-producing effects of the fibroblasts,” says Kang, noting the publication drew a lot of attention and has inspired further research in this area.

Fedak, a cardiac surgeon, researcher, educator and the director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, says Kang’s work has had translational impact as the clinical results of SGLT2 inhibitors have been a game-changer and continue to help patients around the world.

“We don’t know how the SGLT2 inhibitors work so well and Kang’s data suggests some cellular and molecular mechanisms that can explain the clinical benefits,” he says. “Researchers have been desperately searching for these answers. This work is getting international attention, so it is no surprise he has been honoured by this national award. We are very proud of him.”

This isn’t Kang’s first award. During his graduate studies he received a scholarship from Alberta Innovates that allowed him to complete a year-long internship. He spent the year working in industry and with Fedak as an interim research co-ordinator on a project looking at the effects of a new type of bone adhesive, designed to improve healing of the breastbone in patients after open heart surgery.

He is now a research associate working with cardiac surgeons and researchers at the Libin assisting with the management and operation of clinical trials.

Kang loves his work experience in clinical research and is looking forward to a potential career in health care in the future.

“Working with patients in research I get to see first-hand the care they receive and the different players that are involved that work together in providing that care,” he says. “I have come to really appreciate the multidisciplinary approach to providing patient care.”

Paul Fedak is a professor and head of the Department of Cardiac Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is the director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute and directs the Marlene and Don Campbell Family Cardiac Research Laboratory.