Sept. 27, 2021

Clinician-researcher honoured with lifetime achievement award for work on heart arrhythmias

Anne Gillis makes lasting impact on field of cardiac electrophysiology
Anne Gillis
Anne Gillis has been recognized with a lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Heart Rhythm Society. Libin Cardiovascular Institute

Dr. Anne Gillis, MD, a UCalgary scholar who is internationally recognized for her contributions to our understanding of the mechanisms behind cardiac arrhythmias, has been recognized with a lifetime achievement award.

The Canadian Heart Rhythm Society (CHRS) has announced Gillis, a professor in the Department of Cardiac Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), as the 2021 recipient of its prestigious Annual Achievement Award. The award was created in 2012 to recognize Canadian CHRS members who have made outstanding contributions within the cardiovascular heart rhythm field.

Gillis is deeply honoured to be recognized by her peers.

“Over the last 30-plus years, the field of cardiac electrophysiology has evolved in many exciting directions. During that time, it has been a privilege to work with many colleagues locally, nationally and internationally on collaborative research projects, peer review committees, guidelines documents, other health-care initiatives as well as national and international scientific sessions,” she says.

“Together these initiatives have significantly improved outcomes and quality of life for patients with heart rhythm disorders. In addition, I cherish the many friendships that have developed as a result of these activities.”

Gillis is an internationally renowned clinician-scientist whose passion for cardiology began during her second year of medical school at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S. A subsequent elective she took in the Coronary Care Unit of Victoria General Hospital in Halifax solidified Gillis’s desire to focus her efforts on helping patients in the then-emerging subspecialty of electrophysiology.

Gillis has spent the bulk of her 30-year career in Calgary, arriving in 1986. She was attracted by the research environment, the people and the proximity to hiking and skiing in the Rocky Mountains, and she has stayed for the same reasons.

Gillis is a world-class mentor, researcher, clinician and leader within the Libin Cardiovascular Institute. She has been recognized by her peers on numerous occasions, including as the 2018 recipient of the Canadian Cardiovascular Society’s Achievement Award, given in recognition of a lifetime of outstanding contributions to the cardiovascular field.

As a translational scientist and clinical researcher, Gillis has contributed more than 200 articles and book chapters. She is internationally recognized for contributions to the understanding of the mechanisms underlying cardiac arrhythmias and investigating novel ways to treat them.

Gillis has published trailblazing research on the cellular mechanisms of cardiac defibrillation and clinical studies defining the role of atrial pacing for prevention and management of atrial fibrillation (AF), the most common arrhythmia.

In her later work, Gillis collaborated with her colleague, Dr. Wayne Chen, PhD, to investigate the role of calcium-triggered activity and the ryanodine receptor (the microscopic gateway that allows the heart to beat) in how arrhythmias begin; and to examine the role of specific drugs in preventing AF.

Gillis, who is set to retire from clinical practice at the end of 2021, has also contributed to major innovations in health-care delivery. She developed standards for nurse clinician-led device clinics and developed the first AF clinic in Canada. Both have become models for care across the nation.

In 2004, she led the first Canadian initiative to introduce remote monitoring of implantable cardioverter defibrillators and pacemakers. Her efforts have made life easier for patients, who may not have to attend a clinic for heart monitoring.

Gillis is a respected international leader in the field of cardiac electrophysiology, serving as president of the Heart Rhythm Society from 2012 to 2013. In this role, she led medical, allied health and science professionals specializing in cardiac rhythm disorders from more than 70 countries. She has also held numerous positions on the Canadian Cardiovascular Society Academy board, including vice president and president.

In 1996, Gillis was the first woman in the Department of Medicine at the University of Calgary to be promoted to professor. She has been influential in the development and growth of the Libin Institute as deputy director, a position she held between 2015- 2019.

In that role, Gillis worked closely with Dr. Todd Anderson, MD, the vice-dean of the CSM and former director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

“Dr. Gillis had such a positive influence on our success during those years,” says Anderson. “I greatly appreciate her guidance, wisdom and friendship over the years. We are very proud of her accomplishments and what she means to the cardiovascular community in Canada.”

Gillis says her career has been driven by a desire to improve outcomes for patients. She expresses gratitude for her colleagues, including Drs. Brent Mitchell, MD, George Wyse, MD, Henry Duff, MD, PhD, Robert Sheldon MD, PhD, Katherine Kavanagh, MD, and Derek Exner, MD, for helping to create the positive collaborative atmosphere that enabled, in part, her success.

She is also thankful for Alberta Innovates (formerly the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research), noting the organization’s support was instrumental in allowing her to take time away from her busy clinical practice to conduct meaningful research.

Dr. Satish Raj, MD, a clinician-scientist and longtime colleague of Gillis, says the award is a testament to Gillis’s commitment to excellence.

“[Gillis] is an outstanding clinician, scientist and educator,” says Raj. “As the former program director of the Libin Institute’s Cardiac Electrophysiology Program, she trained a generation of heart rhythm specialists who are now working throughout the world. She has also served as a role model and mentor to generations of female cardiologists.”

Todd Anderson is a clinician- scientist, professor in the Department of Cardiac Sciences, vice-dean of the Cumming School of Medicine and former director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

Satish Raj is a clinician-scientist and professor specializing in autonomic disorders in the departments of Cardiac Sciences and Medicine at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

Anne Gillis is a clinician-scientist and professor in the departments of Cardiac Sciences and Medicine at the Cumming School of Medicine. She is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.