A swell of salt and water pushes Banting Scholar Dr. Nick Weilinger’s research

Dr. Nick Weilinger, MacVicar Lab, Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health

“In theory, cerebral edema is a very simple issue; it’s the movement of water from the blood into the brain by osmosis, causing brain swelling. When water is drawn into nerve cells, the brain expands in the skull and that’s where you see severe complications from stroke or traumatic brain injury,” explains Dr. Nick Weilinger. “My work in the MacVicar Lab is focused on trying to understand the underlying causes of brain swelling. What are the mechanisms driving the edema?”

Dr. Weilinger, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR) trainee and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute Postdoctoral Fellow awardee, joined Dr. Brian MacVicar’s lab in 2015 to pursue novel targets for cerebral edema during stroke. He is the recent recipient of a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) for his work in understanding why the brain swells.

Brain swelling is a gradual process that becomes life-threatening within hours to days after stroke or brain injury, and is caused by an imbalance of sodium and chloride ions that leads to water accumulation in nerve cells. This swelling can put excess pressure on the brain stem, the part of the brain controlling breathing and heart rate, which can be fatal.

Despite cerebral edema being a hallmark feature of stroke, the third leading cause of death in Canada, there is currently no treatment targeting the ionic imbalance in nerve cells to mitigate neural swelling.

Dr. Weilinger is currently investigating the role of proteins in regulating salt, and thereby water into the brain’s cells, with the hope that he’ll be able to pinpoint the proteins responsible for swelling, reduce osmotic pressure into cells, and mitigate the swelling as it happens.

 “Working in Dr. MacVicar’s lab presents a unique opportunity to follow this particular line of research, as I access to proprietary equipment, developed in house, that is not available anywhere else.”

“Using the MacVicar Lab imaging systems, I’m able to measure salt content in cells under highly specific circumstances, like stroke,” explains Dr. Weilinger. “My hope is that we can use this imaging technology to determine the protein conduit responsible for moving salt in and out of cells during swelling, which will help inform novel treatments.”

 “Once we have a target, we’ll be able to screen drug candidates that could block these proteins from triggering edema,” says Dr. Weilinger.

Dr. Weilinger, who received a CIHR Brain Star award last year for his 2015 Nature Neuroscience publication “Metabotropic NMDA receptor signaling couples Src family kinases to pannexin-1 during excitotoxicity,” looks forward to continuing his research at UBC and the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health under the guidance of Dr. MacVicar.

“Dr. Weilinger is an innovative, creative young researcher who has been invaluable to the research my lab is doing toward understanding neuronal death triggered by edema,” says Dr. MacVicar. “Nick has shown he excels not only at the technical demands of experiments but also at the creative design of the discovery path. I look forward to watching his stellar research career unfold.” 

The Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships Program provides the opportunity to bring top talent to join the research community at UBC. Fellowships are awarded to the very best postdoctoral researchers, both nationally and internationally, who will positively contribute to Canada's economic, social and research-based growth. Emphasis is placed on the synergy of research goals and projects between applicants, supervisors, and host institutions.