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Research looks at sex and gender impacts on heart health

University of Guelph research into sex and gender impacts on circadian rhythms and heart health is opening doors for more discussion on this emerging area. 

Recent research from Ontario Veterinary College Biomedical Sciences professor Tami Martino’s lab has focused on how the female heart is radically different from the male heart. “Female hearts and male hearts might look the same to our eyes, but they are not at all the same at the molecular, cellular, or functional level” says Martino, who also heads up the Centre for Cardiovascular Investigations at the U of G. 

Chalkboard photo of heart

Research focuses on the circadian clock, the body’s sleep-wake cycle
Martino’s research focuses on the circadian clock, the body’s sleep-wake cycle, using environmental, genetic and pharmacologic tools. These tools are used to learn how the circadian mechanism coordinates healthy physiology and influences cardiovascular disease. 

Initially, the Martino lab, in collaboration with the Marica Bakovic lab, in the College of Biological Science’s Human Health and Nutritional Science (HHNS) department, showed that the lipid composition – the molecules that make up our cell membranes – are actually different in male and female heart cells. Moreover, the relative composition of these molecules can contribute to the development of heart disease. ( )

Next, the Martino research lab, in collaboration with the Bakovic (HHNS) and Elena Choleris lab, in the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences’ Psychology department, showed that the circadian clock mechanism regulates the composition of the cell membranes. 

In male mice, disrupting the circadian clock mechanism led to changes in the cell membranes consistent with the development of age-dependent cardiomyopathy. In contrast, female mice were protected from heart disease, even when their circadian clock mechanism was disturbed. Moreover, the researchers found that it is ovarian hormones that protect female mice from the development of age-dependent cardiomyopathy even when their circadian clock is disturbed. 

“This paradigm shift explains why females have a heart health advantage when they are younger, and why this advantage persists for females even when circadian rhythms are disturbed, for example, through shift work”, says Martino. “Collectively, these studies show for the first time, that the interaction of ovarian hormones and circadian rhythms influence heart health as we age.”

This led to the researchers’ work being profiled with an editorial feature in December in the high impact journal Cardiovascular Research.

These studies highlight the importance of taking the influence of biological sex into account when it comes to studying health and disease. And it’s opening new doors for discussing and understanding heart disease and the role of sex and gender.

Tami Martino and Karen Korabik, University of GuelphIn mid-November, Martino was an invited delegate to the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) Institute of Gender and Health (IGH) Meeting on the Future of Sex and Gender in Health Research, in Montreal. Meeting objectives included hearing about cutting-edge advances in sex and gender science and new innovations in funding and policy, hearing about the Institute’s progress, and providing advice on IGH’s strategic direction going forward into the next 5 years, says Martino. 

While there, she connected with another U of G researcher, psychology professor Karen Korabik, whose research centres around topics related to health and well-being, including the work-family interface, gender and diversity dynamics in organizations, and leadership and conflict management. 

Korabik is a “Sex and Gender Champion” for CIHR, which is a key role providing direction to research teams to ensure that sex and/or gender considerations are integrated into research projects to help teams achieve valid findings that consider sex and gender issues, says Martino. Recently Korabik was involved with Project 3535, an interdisciplinary team that has collected data on the work-family interface from over 3,000 participants on four continents.

READ the entire article on the OVC website

(Photo: Tami Martino and Karen Korabik, University of Guelph)