Dr. Heather Armstrong

Assistant Professor, University of Manitoba

Heather Armstrong, Assistant Professor, University of Manitoba 

Dr. Armstrong completed her BSc training at the University of Alberta with a focus on neurosciences and science psychology. and her MSc in Cell Biology at the University of Alberta. She next completed her PhD-MED at the University of Adelaide and South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) where she examined therapeutic responses in the treatment of breast and prostate cancer. Her fellowship was completed in pediatrics at the Stollery Children's Hospital at the University of Alberta studying clinical gastroenterology and translational microbiology with a focus on autoimmune diseases (e.g., inflammatory bowel diseases). During her CIHR/Mitacs funded fellowship she was also a lecturer for the School of Medicine and Dentistry MD/DDS programs at the University of Alberta. 

As an assistant professor and tier 2 Canadian Research Chair (CRC) at the University of Manitoba, Department of Internal Medicine, she and her team continue to advance the fields of nutrition, microbiology, autoimmunity, oncology and translational research to improve the outcomes of persons with autoimmune diseases and cancers associated with altered gut microbiome. Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a progressive debilitating condition of the central nervous system (CNS) that is characterized by autoimmune-mediated demyelination (loss of myelin sheath), and consequently functional impairments. Current treatment options for MS are mostly immunomodulatory (modifying the response of the immune system) to attenuate relapses, although side effects of these agents are common and their associated costs are extensive for both healthcare and persons with MS. Thus, there is an unmet need to develop therapies that can support reduced symptoms in MS which are safer, more cost effective, and offer personalized care. The central tenet of Dr Armstrong’s work is to support such strategies.  

Learn more about Dr. Armstrong 

What is the focus of your research? How did you become interested in MS research?  

Our work is focused on empowering patients through science-based evidence and diet research which patients can readily control and manage for themselves. Diet is a well-supported tool in health and disease settings, however there remains only limited mechanistic research to support specific diets for persons with MS. Our team works with industry and agriculture partners, along with clinical teams and patients. Together, we aim to uncover how an individual’s gut microbe community can impact their response to diet, and ultimately, how we can use these findings to translate our research into accessible and affordable interventions for patients. Our initial findings have demonstrated great progress in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) patients, and the clear similarities between IBD and MS led us to expand our work with some of Canada’s best and brightest MS researchers and clinicians. 

 What inspires you to continue advancing research in this field?  

Being diagnosed with a severe and chronic illness is one of the most difficult things people face in their lives. While a part of the inspiration comes from our interest in the specific research topics we study, a huge inspiration is the impact our work can have for so many people and families in Canada and around the world. While many persons with MS already know about diet options that can be beneficial for MS (primarily related to dietary fats and proteins), it is so extremely exciting to think that a personalized diet, based on an individuals gut microbiota profile, could significantly improve disease outcomes and ultimately, quality of life for many people.  

How do you hope to change the lives of people living with MS through your research?  

Using nutrition (specifically dietary fibres) to treat and prevent chronic inflammatory conditions is an attractive option. However, the science remains lacking related to interactions between specific fibres, microbes, and host. This project will act as a stepping stone, allowing us to first identify the role of microbiota compositions on host response to specific dietary fibres in MS. Building off of our findings, in future studies we would aim to determine if the effects of altered gut microbiota can promote diet-associated inflammation in select MS patients, supporting development of disease-specific biomarkers to guide personalized dietary guidelines.  

What do you enjoy most about your research? What are some of the challenges you face?  

Few careers offer such diverse and rewarding opportunities. Our research not only allows us to improve lives for those suffering most, but also supports training and career opportunities for the next generation of young scientists and clinicians. Many of our trainees and staff are either personally impacted by one of the diseases we study, or know someone who is, meaning we are all personally invested in scientific integrity and swift and impactful progress. Challenges are natural in any workplace but we are lucky to have so much support from patients, collaborators, and funding agencies, ensuring recruitment and research progress can be made.  

How important is the support from MS Canada in your research?  

The support of MS Canada is absolutely essential for research teams like us! Not only financially to ensure we are able to recruit participants, collect samples, and complete and analyze experiments, but MS Canada’s network helps our team engage better with patients and other experts in the field to ensure our findings are translated into new and improved therapies.