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Concordia researcher investigates how diabetes leads to vascular disease

Master's student Dana-Rae Yadao looks at how exercise can protect patients' cardiovascular systems
October 1, 2018

Three times a week, Dana-Rae Yadao puts mice to work on a treadmill.

The master’s student in Concordia’s Department of Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology is investigating how Type I diabetes leads to vascular disease. She runs diabetic and non-diabetic mice, then compares them to diabetic and non-diabetic sedentary control groups to find out whether exercise can protect the cardiovascular system.

I began to develop a passion for research

Dana-Rae Yadao

How does this specific image relate to your research at Concordia? 

Dana-Rae Yadao: This is a customized rodent treadmill that was built by the Bergdahl Lab. We use it to train exercise groups. The treadmill has an advantage over conventional running wheels because it allows us to accurately control for distance, speed or intensity, duration and incline.

In the lab, we follow a specific training protocol, wherein the mice run three days a week for four weeks. The protocol reflects a long-term, progressive training program. Thus, the duration is increased by five minutes each session until a maximum of 60 minutes is reached.

This helps to boost the endurance of the mice and avoids having them stay on a maintenance program. It is particularly important for attaining optimal physiological adaptations associated with endurance exercise.

As you can see, there are five lanes, but the dividers can be removed to fit larger animals such as rats or rabbits. Overall, the treadmill is a versatile tool that can be customized to accommodate a variety of animals to measure physical activity.

What is the hoped-for result of your project? And what impact could you see it having on people's lives?

DY: Diabetes is a highly prevalent disease that affects people from all walks of life, with almost 4 million Canadians currently dealing with the disease.

While a variety of treatments are readily available for diabetic patients, the reality is that the leading cause of mortality among this population continues to be cardiovascular disease, with oxidative stress as the primary mediator.

While there are current theories surrounding antioxidant therapy as a viable treatment, previous studies have suggested that metallothionein in particular reduces the severity of diabetic heart disease.

Metallothionein is a cysteine-rich and heavy metal-binding protein produced by the body that has antioxidative qualities. Previous studies have shown that there's an increase in cardiac metallothionein levels after exercise.

To date, no studies have examined the possible effects of metallothionein on the blood vessel structure. I hope my project can shed some light on this relationship and justify large-scale utilization of the antioxidant to effectively target the cardiovascular system and ultimately lower the risk of developing heart disease.

What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?

DY: One of the biggest challenges I face in my research is witnessing firsthand the complications associated with diabetes. It's not easy to watch a mouse go through the debilitating stages of hyperglycemia, and it makes me wonder about all the people who have to deal with this disease.

In addition, given our research involves working with major blood vessels — specifically the aorta — human samples are difficult to obtain. Therefore, another major challenge is justifying that our research on mice can be applied to humans. Luckily, certain cells in rodent tissue respond similarly to those in humans during exercise.

What are some of the key areas where your work could be applied?

DY: Our work could be applied in clinical settings that focus on diabetes-induced cardiovascular disease. More importantly, it could contribute to the current body of work surrounding the relationship between oxidative stress, exercise, metallothionein and diabetes.

What person, experience or moment in time first inspired you to study this subject and get involved in the field?

DY: I remember being worried and unsure about what I was going to do once I graduated. My fear of the future continued until one day, during my physiology lecture, when I realized that I truly enjoyed the subject and that it would be something worth pursuing.

I decided to contact Andreas Bergdahl, associate professor in the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology, about the possibility of volunteering in his lab. Instead of having me shadow his work, he came up with a research project for me to get started on right away.

The last two semesters of my undergrad were the most fulfilling and rewarding semesters I ever had. The project I worked on evolved into my thesis today, and it allowed me to get a taste of what research is like. I immediately began to develop a passion for research, as well as writing, in cardiovascular physiology.

Even though I still have moments of uncertainty, being a part of Dr. Bergdahl’s team has allowed me to become more confident in the lab setting and it has definitely broadened my horizons in terms of career options in the field.

How can interested STEM students get involved in this line of research? What advice would you give them?

DY: The best way to get involved is to familiarize yourself with the ongoing research projects within the Concordia Cardiovascular Lab. Go to research conferences and attend abstract poster presentations orientated towards cardiovascular physiology to get to know more about the field.

From this, you can find out what interests you and come up with ideas of your own that you may want to study.

Showing interest in your professors’ work is another great way to get involved. Who knows? They could have you start on a research project right away. Many professors, such as Dr. Bergdahl, offer volunteer opportunities within their labs.

What do you like best about being at Concordia?

DY: I love being a student at Concordia because it's not a harsh, competitive environment. Everyone is always so supportive, and we all go out of our way to ensure each other’s success.

More importantly, I have made lifelong friendships throughout my studies, which has made all the difference in the world! From faculty members to peers, there is always someone within reach to talk to, to ask for help, or to discuss the latest happenings of the world with — preferably over coffee, of course.

Are there any partners, agencies or other funding/support attached to your research?

DY: We work in collaboration with the Centre for Biological Applications of Mass Spectrometry (CBAMS) at Concordia. I also received the Concordia University Graduate Master’s Fellowship in September 2016.

A research storytelling champion

Last spring, Dana-Rae Yadao won both the overall title and the People's Choice Award in the Master's Category of the 2018 Concordia 3MT Competition. The 3MT challenges contestents to present their research ideas to a live audience in just three minutes.

Watch the video of Yadao's presentation "Forget Sugar, Sweat Can Make Life Sweeter" here:

Find out more about the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology, or the Bergdahl Lab. You can also follow the lab on Twitter (@Bergdahl_Lab).


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