Can a vaccine protect women from heart disease?

Women’s risk increases after menopause. Dr. Ed O’Brien is working on a solution.
Smiling woman walking out doors holding hiking poles

It’s a fact, women face an increased risk of heart disease and stroke after menopause.

That’s a big concern for Winsome Dewar. She’s already at risk due to her family history; both parents and three siblings died of heart attack or stroke.

In her 50s, Winsome saw her cholesterol level start to edge up. She got it under control and credits her “laser focus” on eating a healthy diet, reducing stress and getting regular physical activity.

Now 61, Winsome was excited to hear about a new research development that could help women reduce their heart risk after menopause.

Declining estrogen, increasing risk

The hormone estrogen is thought to play a role in protecting women from heart disease and stroke, although the mechanism is not well understood. Once a woman passes menopause, estrogen declines and her risk is significantly elevated.

Professor Ed O’Brien is a cardiologist at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta in the University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine, and is renowned for his work in women’s heart health. He serves on the Women’s Heart & Brain Health Research Steering Committee, helping inform Heart & Stroke’s Women’s Initiative.

Dr. Ed O'Brien headshot

Could this protein be thought of as menopausal therapy?

Dr. Ed O’Brien Cardiologist and researcher

Dr. O’Brien and his team discovered that a protein called HSP27 (short for heat shock protein 27), which is regulated by estrogen, lowers levels of both cholesterol and inflammation.

It is well known that high cholesterol levels are associated with heart problems. However, it is only recently that the role of inflammation has become a going cardiac concern.

Inflammation is a healing response when an injury occurs. But if the process continues without check, it can lead to problems such as hardening of the arteries (also called atherosclerosis), which are associated with heart attacks and strokes.

“We’re thinking that this naturally occurring heat shock protein does the good work of estrogen,” says Dr. O’Brien, whose research has been supported by Heart & Stroke donors. “As estrogen levels drop with menopause, so do HSP27 levels. Could HSP27 be thought of as a form of menopausal therapy?”

Dr. O’Brien’s team has been testing an HSP27 vaccine in animal models. They are working towards developing it as a therapy that could reduce cholesterol and inflammation in post-menopausal women at risk for heart disease. It might also be useful for other disorders or aging processes that occur because of excess inflammation.

Alternative to hormone replacement

Such a vaccine has the potential to be a safer alternative to hormone replacement therapy (HRT). New evidence has linked HRT to increased risk of stroke, heart attack and different types of cancer. “There are no therapies available that are really safe or effective for menopausal women,” says Dr. O’Brien.

Winsome Dewar headshot

I just want to be as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

Winsome Dewar

He also has his eye on opportunities to help women in the developing world, where heart disease is on the rise. The goal would be to make a vaccine as simple and inexpensive as possible.

It will be a while before this therapy is ready for clinical trials in people. It’s a research journey that started more than 15 years ago. Over this period Heart & Stroke donors and partners have provided crucial support for Dr. O’Brien’s work.

The life-saving potential of advances like this is made possible by committed supporters such as Canadian Pacific (CP), our visionary partner of heart health research. CP has been funding research innovations through its CP Has Heart program since 2015.

For women like Winsome Dewar, the impact of Dr. O’Brien’s discovery could be life changing — and complement her lifestyle habits. “I just want to be as healthy as possible for as long as possible,” Winsome says.