Leading with the heart

Medical Sciences

- Molly Randhawa

Nicole York, Vanier Scholar
Nicole York, Vanier Scholar (photo supplied).

Nicole York has always been drawn to research, finding joy in solving puzzles and exploring the unknown. Her fascination led her to medical sciences, with a particular interest in the workings of the human body and heart. However, what truly fuels her passion isn't just scientific curiosity but a deeply personal connection to medical exploration, stemming from her own health challenges. 

York began her academic journey at Selkirk College in Castlegar, BC, before pursuing a Bachelor in Biochemistry at UVic, where she then joined Dr. Leigh Anne Swayne’s lab in the Division of Medical Sciences as a work-study student, quickly learning about the challenges and the joys of conducting research. 

Having transitioned to graduate school in 2020, York advanced from her master’s to PhD and successfully completed her candidacy exam in October 2023. For the next three years as part of the Vanier Scholarship, York's focus centers on investigating ankyrin-B (ANKB), a critical protein involved in the development of heart muscle cells called cardiomyocytes.

Under the guidance of experts Dr. Leigh Anne Swayne, a professor in the UVic Division of Medical Sciences, and Dr. Laura Arbour, an affiliate professor in the UVic Division of Medical Science and a professor in the UBC Department of Medical Genetics—located in the UBC Island Medical Program situated at UVic—York’s research focuses on understanding what ANKB does during cardiomyocyte development. This work will provide insight into how an ANKB variant (ANKB p.S646F) could contribute to structural heart disease and electrical disturbances, which are associated with the variant in the Gitxsan First Nation in Northern BC. 

The groundwork for York's research was laid in 2017 when Dr. Swayne and Dr. Arbour assessed the function ANKB p.S646F genetic variant, which was identified while investigating Long QT syndrome through a long-standing research partnership with the Gitxsan First Nation. This variant has been associated with heart defects, arrhythmias, sudden death, seizures, and cerebral aneurysms but little is known about ANKB function in the heart.

Currently, York’s research focuses on deciphering how ANKB functions within cardiomyocytes as they develop. She predicts the protein helps regulate the structure—and therefore the function—of the mature heart cells. Understanding how ANKB normally works in cardiomyocytes will help York identify how the ANKB variant impacts the cells’ structure and function, as well as if these changes contribute to the health conditions seen in the Gitxsan community.

My thesis research is part of a larger community-based project [based in the Swayne and Arbour Labs] aiming to design preventive and evidence-based medicine interventions. Improved understanding of ANKB’s role in heart cell development will provide insight into the impact of ANKB in disease, while investigating ANKB p.S646F will contribute knowledge on the variant’s impacts within this community.” 

— Nicole York

York’s pursuit of sharing the findings of ANKB’s impact showcases the importance of scientific exploration in shaping cardiovascular health within Indigenous communities while comprehending underlying genetic influences. Her passion for research and problem-solving shines through, offering valuable insights into a complex health problem affecting some in the Gitxsan community. Beyond her PhD, Nicole aims to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship, continuing her pursuit of learning and research.


In this story

Keywords: research, medicine, Indigenous

People: Nicole York

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