Ion channels: Molecular determinants of health and disease in the head and heart

Though vastly different, both the brain and the heart rely on large complicated proteins called ion channels in order to function properly. These proteins facilitate the controlled flow of ions in and out of cells by forming pores that stud cellular membranes. Specialized brain cells called neurons utilize ion channels and the electrical signals they generate to communicate with one another. A repertoire of different ion channels also shapes the birth, growth and development of neurons. During brain injury, ion channel activity can render populations of neurons vulnerable to damage. However, following injury, ion channels can also sensitize surviving neurons and modify their structure and function in ways that allow them to respond, adapt and promote repair. Similarly, the electrical activity underlying the coordinated beating of heart muscle cells is generated by the concerted actions of a cohort of ion channels. It follows that mutations in the proteins that form ion channels can manifest in a spectrum of clinical neurological and heart conditions.

In a series of coordinated projects, Dr. Swayne is working to shed light on how ion channels impact on brain and heart health. Dr. Swayne has been examining the cell biology of pannexin ion channels and their role in neuronal development and injury-triggered plasticity. In collaboration with a group at the University of Ottawa, Dr. Swayne’s team is also studying how probenecid, a drug that stops the function of pannexins, impacts stroke recovery. In parallel, to identify novel ion channel regulators of developmental and injury-triggered neuronal plasticity, her lab is combining basic biochemistry with cutting edge expertise at the UVIC Genome BC Proteomics Centre. Finally, in partnership with the UBC Community Genetics Research Program, Dr. Swayne is also investigating the cell biological underpinnings of clinically relevant cardiac ion channel mutations affecting certain BC First Nations communities.

Overall, Dr. Swayne’s research will bridge critical knowledge gaps in the understanding of ion channel function and dysfunction in the brain and heart.