April 16, 2024

E.R. Smith Lecturer says rural upbringing helped foster natural curiosity

Ian Dixon provides glimpse into successful research career focusing on cardiac cells and tissue engineering
A man with a white beard and hair wearing glasses and a blue collared shirt smiles at the camera
Ian Dixon

The University of Manitoba’s Dr. Ian Dixon, PhD, is the 2024 Libin Cardiovascular Institute E.R. Smith Lecturer. Dixon will present at this year’s Tine Haworth Cardiovascular Research Day on April 30, 2024. Continue reading to learn more about Dixon’s background and career. 

Ian Dixon has come a long way since his boyhood growing up on a farm south of Winnipeg, but he hasn’t forgotten the lessons his hardworking rural life imparted.  

Dixon, who now heads the Department of Physiology and Pathophysiology at the University of Manitoba, says growing up on the mixed grain farm awakened his natural curiosity and love of biology, setting him up for success as a scientist. 

“My dad was a farmer, but he was also a wildlife biologist, and when I was young, he gave me an appreciation of ecology, biology and for how things work together,” says Dixon. “I learned that if you break something it impacts other things because the system is integrated.” 

Dixon’s parents encouraged his curiosity, even when his questions were challenging and seemingly unending. 

“I remember asking my dad how a duck can fly at 80 km/hr continuously for several hours,” says Dixon. “He didn’t know, but he encouraged me to find out. It led me to learning about fast twitch versus slow twitch muscle, which I found very interesting.”

Dixon’s early experiences piqued his interest — which has never waned — in how the body worked. 

Early interest in heart health

When his grandfather passed away in the late 1960s while he was still a boy, Dixon wondered, “Why can’t we just fix it?” This curiosity led him to learning about the heart. 

Later, as a young teen, Dixon had a growth spurt that left his kidney function behind. He temporarily developed transient hypertension, and decided to learn all he could about the renal system. 

In high school, Dixon thrived in science classes. He loved biological sciences so much that he chose to earn a bachelor of science, master's and PhD on the topic. He stayed close to home, earning all three of his degrees at the University of Manitoba. 

Following graduation, he briefly left his home province to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto in the lab of Dr. Michael Sole, the founder of the Centre for Cardiovascular Research at U of T. 

Dixon’s early research focus was on cardiac fibroblasts and myofibroblasts, cells that are involved in the formation of scar tissue in the heart (fibrosis) after an injury like a heart attack. Early in his career, he hypothesized that heart failure and cardiac fibrosis (scarring) are linked. 

Changed the way researchers study heart failure

His hunch was accurate, and he and the members of the lab contributed to the literature around this now well-known discovery, which has changed the way researchers study heart failure.    

“Having contributed to that discovery is one of my most satisfying contributions,” says Dixon. “I know the work we did led people to that line of thinking.”

The focus of Dixon’s lab has since expanded to include bioengineered extracellular matrix (ECM) scaffolds. These inert scaffolds create a structure for cell growth and have multiple potential uses. 

Dixon is part of a fascinating project working towards an alternative to porcine valves for heart valve replacements. The project uses a biological scaffold, developed by stripping antigens from the pericardium of a pig, and incorporates human cells from the valve recipient. The goal of the project is to create a living valve that won’t need replacement. 

“We would take donor fibroblasts, culture them, load them into this “clean” ECM scaffold … and those cells will first settle in and then contribute to a gradual transition of protein structure that is compatible with the donor, something the donor’s body will accept,” says Dixon. “The hypothesis is that this will last potentially a lifetime, and because it’s living, it’s constantly repairing.” 

Comparisons of skin and heart fibroblasts

Another area of interest compares skin and heart fibroblasts. Dixon is specifically looking at the mechanism that signals formation of scar tissue to stop, which is present in skin cells but missing in the heart. 

All of Dixon’s hard work and curiosity has led to big success. He has published 110 peer-reviewed publications, 20 book chapters with 124 abstracts and edited four books. 

Dixon is highly respected by his peers. He has served on many national and international review committees in basic cardiovascular sciences, including chairing five different panels for CIHR committees and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. He is a reviewer for several cardiovascular journals, including Cardiovascular Research, Circulation, British Journal of Pharmacology and American Journal of Physiology.

Dixon has also earned numerous awards and distinctions, including the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Manitoba Robert E. Beamish Memorial Award for Excellence in Cardiovascular Research (2001 and 2007).

He has the following advice for research trainees. 

“Don’t take yourself too seriously and try not to adhere too tightly to your favourite hypothesis,” he says. “If you get into research you are bound to run experiments that fail, but don’t let that defeat you. Don’t give up on a bad result, try to find out why it came about. If you ignore it, you are probably missing an opportunity.”

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