Sept. 9, 2021

Clinician-scientist focuses on improving lives of Albertans with heart problems

Dr. Derek Exner explores novel therapies through clinical trials
Dr. Derek Exner
Dr. Derek Exner Libin Cardiovascular Institute

Dr. Derek Exner, MD, is focused on improving the health and wellbeing of Albertans with heart problems by using clinical trials to test therapies, then bringing those safe and effective treatments to the bedside.

A busy clinician-scientist and professor in the Libin Cardiovascular Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), Exner’s clinical activity and research focus is on identifying people with heart rhythm problems. 

Exner, an innovator and holder of numerous patents, spends most of this time at the University of Calgary’s Life Sciences Innovation Hub (LSIH), a 127,000-square-foot facility with 35,000 square feet of wet and dry lab space, designed to build and grow promising life science-based companies. Exner says about 95 local and international companies have taken advantage of the LSIH. The Hub provides an array of services, including the IMPACT program, which Exner created and now as the Hub’s Executive Director.

IMPACT is a one-of-a-kind program that disrupts traditional healthcare innovation by accelerating market approval via a tailored evidence collection and regulatory framework,” says Exner. “We have had great success and will continue to attract companies to Calgary, growing our economy of innovation.”

He is also the associate dean of Clinical Trials at CSM and has worked with his colleagues at UCalgary and across Alberta to improve the health of Albertans through clinical trials. This includes initiatives like Clinical Trials Alberta, which is working to establish Alberta as a premier destination for conducting high-quality clinical trials.

Exner and his colleagues have also brought new technologies to Alberta to facilitate clinical trials, including the OnCore Clinical Trial Management System (CTMS) to better coordinate research activities.

“We are working to integrate clinical research in Alberta through a variety of initiatives to increase the number of clinical trials and the quality of those studies,” says Exner. “Ultimately, we want to provide Albertans with more opportunities to improve health. These important initiatives lay the foundation for recruitment and long-term sustainability of the Libin Institute and UCalgary as a whole.”

In addition to these activities, Exner is a highly respected cardiologist and world-renowned researcher who specializes in arrhythmias. He holds the Canada Research Chair in Cardiovascular Clinical Trials, leads multiple large international trials and has published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles in journals that include the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

One international multi-site trial that remains a focus for Exner is REFINE ICD. It is the culmination of discoveries made by Exner and his colleagues at the Libin that have the potential to save lives after a heart attack. Using a heartbeat recording device called a Holter monitor, Libin researchers are better able to identify individuals at high risk of serious heart rhythm problems that lead to a cardiac arrest, which kills thousands of Canadians every year.

“Our REFINE Holter test triples a cardiologist’s ability to predict which patients will develop dangerous rhythms after a heart attack,” says Exner. “The ongoing clinical trial will determine whether an implantable defibrillator, a modified pacemaker device, can save lives. This work is leading edge and has the potential to change how cardiologists treat patients after a heart attack.”

A spinoff from the REFINE Holter project and the REFINE ICD study uses machine learning and artificial intelligence in the analysis of the heartbeat data. This work will help hospitals and clinics to implement the REFINE Holter test, allowing cardiologists to better identify patients who need more testing, changes to their medications or additional therapies.

Dr. Derek Exner, MD, is a professor in the Departments of Cardiac Sciences and Community Health Sciences at the CSM. He is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.