Dr. Thomas Jurrissen (PhD) was the successful recipient of the 2023 Misiwêskamik International Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded by USask. (Photo: Submitted)

New vascular health research supported by USask fellowship

A University of Saskatchewan (USask) post-doctoral fellowship is supporting the research of vascular health in congenital heart disease.

By Matt Olson

Dr. Thomas Jurrissen (PhD) was the successful recipient of the 2023 Misiwêskamik International Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded by USask. The two-year fellowship aims to attract strong international researchers to USask as part of the university’s International Blueprint for Action.  

Jurrissen completed his PhD at the University of Missouri where his research focused on improving vascular health in patients with Type 2 diabetes.

“My research involved investigating the mechanisms involved with vascular dysfunction associated with obesity, insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes,” Jurrissen said. “Individuals with Type 2 diabetes have poor vascular function, which causes an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. By better understanding the mechanisms of vascular dysfunction, new therapies can be developed to manage and treat vascular health in the setting of Type 2 diabetes.”

As Jurrissen puts it, endothelial cells, which line the inside of all blood vessels in the body, are impaired in patients with Type 2 diabetes. This impairment, called endothelial dysfunction, is a hallmark of patients with Type 2 diabetes and involves the decreased response of the vessels to dilate and protect the blood vessels from inflammation.

Most of Jurrissen’s previous experience comes from studying animal models, so he said his experiences at USask are helping him integrate more of the clinical tools to conduct research with human populations.  In his new role at USask, Jurrissen will be involved in an upcoming clinical trial funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. The study will involve patients performing handgrip exercise training.  Jurrissen and the rest of the research team will investigate how handgrip exercise training affects vascular health in patients with congenital heart disease.

Exercise has been well documented to improve vascular health. Given that patients with congenital heart disease often have endothelial dysfunction and an impaired tolerance to exercise, the aim of the study is to determine whether hand grip exercise will induce improvements in vascular health.

The research team will not only assess vascular health in the arm but also in the brain. Using ultrasound, Jurrissen will measure blood flow in the brachial artery in the arm and middle cerebral artery in the brain.

“[Members of the study will] work on hand grip exercises for six weeks to see if that will improve their vascular health in their arm and increase brain blood flow in patients with congenital heart disease,” Jurrissen said.

Currently, Jurrissen is learning more clinical techniques from his advisors – Dr. Dylan Olver (PhD) with the Western College of Veterinary Medicine and Dr. Corey Tomczak (PhD) with the College of Kinesiology – and improving his skills for upcoming projects.

“In coming here, the main objective was to acquire new skills and experience working with clinical human populations,” Jurrissen said. “The team here has been phenomenal. Everyone has been very friendly, eager to help, and excited to conduct the best research we can. It has been a lot of fun.”