Katey Rayner, PhD
Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Medicine and Scientist at the Heart Institute

As the youngest of five sisters, growing up in Ottawa, Katey Rayner was outspoken, always debating, dissecting people’s arguments, and constantly asking, why? In those early days, the endless questioning was a way to rationalize and understand the world. But by the time Rayner was an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, the questions became more focused: How do diseases happen? What are their molecular pathologies? How can they be treated?

In contrast to what some may expect, Katey didn’t develop her love of science until well into her university career. In high school, while she loved school and excelled in science, Katey wasn’t particularly fascinated about the natural world around her, and she didn’t spend time taking things apart and putting them back together—typical images of a budding scientist. In fact, she loved drama class, and toyed with the idea of focusing her efforts in drama and acting. But, she tried out for the high school improv team and didn’t make it, so that was the end of that. But during university, she enrolled in a new program called Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, which focused on the molecular mechanisms of different diseases. She credits this program with her becoming a biomedical researcher, as she realized that scientific research satisfied her curiosity and her tendency to always ask “why”.

A Q & A with Katey Rayner, Heart Month 2021 Ambassador

What does it mean to you to be our 2021 Heart Month Ambassador?

I am a fiercely proud member of the Heart Institute team. I believe we have a unique environment of both clinical and research excellence that cannot be found anywhere else. I often brag to my colleagues at much bigger and high-profile institutions about our facilities, our patient engagement and our research teams. So, it is fitting that I am now showing that pride in my capacity as Heart Month Ambassador.

What excites you about the research programs at UOHI?

What always amazes me about our research at the Heart Institute is where it fits on the global scale. Despite its relatively small size, our research is continually featured on the world stage. Whether its our clinical research that finds the most effective intervention for patients following a heart attack, or our basic research findings that cells can be reprogrammed to become heart muscle. We are always punching above our weight in terms of our research findings and their importance in moving the field forward.

What does your research lab study? What are the goals of this study?

My lab investigates how inflammation contributes to heart disease. Specifically, the disease called atherosclerosis that causes coronary artery blockages. This is traditionally thought to be simply a result of excess cholesterol or fat, but it’s really the inflammatory response to the cholesterol that causes the build up. While we can lower cholesterol using drugs like statins to reduce disease, there is still a significant amount of disease risk that happens because of the inflammation that is in over-drive. We are understanding the specific type of inflammation in the arteries so that we can treat it specifically without having to use broad anti-inflammatories that might have unwanted effects like increasing infections.

How are donations used to help advance research?

Research in Canada is 100% funded from grants, which are given on a competitive basis from either federal research dollars or through charitable organizations like the Heart & Stroke Foundation. However, the demand far exceeds the supply of research dollars, so only about 1 in 10 grants are actually funded year after year. Having the Heart Institute Foundation donations support research gives us the ability to conduct our research in this incredibly challenging environment, without losing our momentum or research capacity. When donations are used to support, for example, a student scholarship, I can recruit a new Master’s student to work on a project that I wouldn’t have been otherwise able to. When another investigator and I brainstorm and come up with a new idea for a clinical problem, we can get started and test our hypotheses using funding support from the donations. This gets ideas off the ground, and enables us to be ready to take the research to the next level. This simply does not happen without the dollars from the Foundation.

What cardiac care breakthroughs do you see happening in the next decade?

I see a complete personalization of care. I see patients coming in, having their blood drawn and analyzed quickly along with the rest of their cardiac assessments and a very individualized report emerging, with guidance on specific medications, doses, exercise programs, diets and mental health practices that suit their exact clinical needs. I envision no two patients having quite the same care profile because we will understand the important differences between their genetics, gender, physical and mental health and how best to treat them. We have begun to scratch the surface of this individualized care, but we have to keep pushing forward to make this a reality.