April 20, 2022

Clinician-researcher’s career parallels explosion in understanding of how genes impact health

Dr. Norman Wong tackles genetic disorder leading to early onset heart attacks
Dr. Norman Wong

Almost 20,000 Albertans are impacted by familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic mutation that causes high levels of LDL cholesterol. This disorder can cause early heart attacks in individuals as young as in their 30s.   

A healthy lifestyle can help prevent individuals with the genetic disorder from suffering heart attacks while still young, making awareness and education critical. However, most people with the disorder are likely unaware they are at risk.

 Dr. Norman Wong, MD, a Libin Institute clinician-researcher, is tackling the problem head on. He works with families of patients who have had heart attacks at a young age to find, track and educate family members with the mutation.

“Half of the offspring of those that carry the gene will have it too,” says Wong. “If we can educate these individuals and intervene, they can make changes and prevent an early heart attack.”

Since starting the clinic seven years ago, Wong’s team has worked with around 400 people with the genetic mutation.  

Wong, a professor in the Departments of Medicine, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Calgary (UCalgary), has spent decades combining his passion for research with a busy clinical practice. He is now approaching the end of a successful 40-year career with plans to begin a sabbatical this year before retiring in 2022.

“The goal of both my research and clinical career has been to look at endocrine causes of heart conditions and try to find ways to prevent and treat them,” says Wong.  

Wong’s career paralleled the explosion of technology and the understanding of how genes impact health. It’s an area he became interested while a graduate student in the 1970s in what was then the new Department of Medical Biochemistry at UCalgary.

Wong was one of the first graduates from that program, earning his degree in 1977 under the mentorship of Dr. Gordon Dixon, a world-renowned researcher who is considered a pioneer in chromatin structure. That work sparked Wong’s lifetime interest in the genetic connections to disease.

Wong completed medical school at UCalgary in the 1980s, later specializing in endocrinology before returning to Calgary, where he spent his career treating patients, conducting research and working with trainees.

His research career centered on studying the interaction between proteins within the cell nucleus that turn genes on and off, specifically on how genes are activated in the presence of disease states.

Wong explains proteins within the chromosome keep the DNA in its compact form, keeping the bulk of the human genes inactive. But when certain proteins change their charge, the DNA unfolds, causing activation of the previously dormant genes. This may occur in response to cellular stress caused by disease states like heart disease and high cholesterol, which can turn on a “whole panel of genes” to address the stress.

“Only a very small amount of your genetic information is used on a regular basis,” says Wong. “I am interested in the process the cell uses to respond to stresses, with the hope that in the future we find ways to block these specific processes without other potential impacts.”

When he looks back, Wong is struck by the changes in genetic research.

“We used to do sequencing by hand,” says Wong. “Now, in just a couple of days we can rifle through your whole genome and pinpoint the difference between you and your children.”

Dr. Robert Rose, PhD, the Libin Cardiovascular Institute’s research director, says Wong is an outstanding example of a successful clinician-scientist.

“[Wong] is highly accomplished and has made substantial contributions to the fields of endocrinology and cardiac disease, both for his patients and for the research community,” says Rose.

Dr. Norman Wong, MD, is professor in the Departments of Medicine, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

Dr. Robert Rose, PhD, is a professor in the Departments of Cardiac Sciences and Physiology and Pharmacology at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is research director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.