Born with heart defects, she’s now researching a cure

Bailey Bernknopf was born with four congenital heart defects.

She had her first surgery at five-months old, followed by another at age 14 that had left doctors wondering if she would survive the night.

Today, at age 22, she is a cardiac disease researcher at the University of Toronto and an ambassador for Heart & Stroke. She is also one of the newest members of the Ted Rogers Centre’s Translational Biology & Engineering Program (TBEP).

“My second surgery lasted more than 13 hours. I had lost an extensive amount of blood and my recovery was slow,” Bailey says. “I became an advocate for heart disease research about a year after my recovery. I wanted to turn the challenges I endured into something positive for myself and others facing similar circumstances.”

Patient, advocate, researcher

Bernknopf is one of 88 new graduate students joining the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) this fall. IBBME is a multidisciplinary research centre that brings together expertise from engineering, medicine and dentistry to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges in human health.

“It was my mom who connected me to Professor Craig Simmons and his lab’s work in cardiovascular disease research,” said Bernknopf. “He was the keynote speaker at a HSF event she attended where he discussed his team’s work on engineering cardiac tissue implants for children—an area that has similarities to my own history.”

Simmons’ work inspired her to apply for a summer research position in his lab while she was still an undergraduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University. In the summer of 2016, she worked with PhD student Rachel Adams (also a member of TBEP) on a project that focused on the molecular mechanisms of aortic valve disease.

Motivated to save lives

“Bailey brings a unique experience and passion to her research. She is personally aware of just how important it is to find new therapies for unmet needs, and this motivates her to find solutions that could save someone’s life,” said Adams. “She brings an optimism and positivity to the lab every day, which inspires others and makes it a pleasure to be around her.”

After graduation, Bernknopf came to a crossroads as to what to do next. She remembered her experiences at U of T and decided to return to Prof. Simmons’ lab to investigate the way that aortic valve disease affects men and women differently.

“The team in Professor Simmons’ lab studies molecules that shows promise in protecting against aortic valve tissue scarring,” Bailey says. “This is important because we know that women are more likely to have valve scarring than men, so I will be determining the molecular basis for the sex-dependent nature of aortic valve disease.

“Also, I have a bicuspid aortic valve so I am predisposed to develop this disorder at a younger age.”

Craig Simmons, Ted Rogers Centre scientific lead at TBEP, says: “The results of Bernknopf’s work has the potential to improve our understanding of aortic valve disease, and eventually lead to more precise and effective treatments for women and men who experience it.

“I am truly inspired by Bailey’s story, her passion and her positivity that she brings to our lab and by those who share similar experiences.”

Story by Luke Ng. Photo by Tyler Irving

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