The Chronicle Herald: DeMONT: Dad’s death steered PhD student to neuroscience

Barring something unforeseen, Tuesday night was one to remember for Lyna Kamintsky, who was born in Russia, raised in Israel, and now calls Halifax home.

A doctoral student in medical neuroscience at Dalhousie University, she was in Ottawa to receive the award for Outstanding Innovation at the PhD level, awarded by Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada for business and academia.

When we spoke a couple of hours before the ceremony, Kamintsky said that she planned to thank her academic supervisors — Steven Beyea and Chris Bowen — and her collaborators at Emagix Inc., the Halifax-based biomedical startup where she works, including founder Alon Friedman and psychiatrist Cynthia Calkin.

Kamintsky also intended to shout a few nice words out to her friends and family.

Her mother, who still lives in Israel and older brother, who makes Germany home, mean a lot to her. So did her father, Alexei, a brilliant scientist and mathematician, who died at the age of 36.

Kamintsky was just six years old at the time, so it was a tragedy, as losing a parent at a young age always is.

Her dad’s death changed her life in another way too.

A brain aneurysm took him from this earth. It happened suddenly with no apparent cause. But in time they pieced the story together.

Because of Kamintsky’s young age at the time she’s a little hazy on the circumstances —something about some scaffolding collapsing on his head — but knows that as a younger man her father suffered a bad concussion.

“It’s one of the reasons for the path my studies have taken,” she says.

You see, Kamintsky, whose grandmother was also a scientist, completed bachelors and masters degrees in biomedical engineering at a university in Israel. Her plan was always to get a sound engineering background, so that she could eventually study neuroscience.

Two years ago she arrived in Halifax and started doing just that. The Mitacs award seems to imply that things are working out.

The organization’s news release cited her breakthrough work “developing a game-changing technology for more accurate diagnosis of brain and retinal vascular injury, ultimately leading to more targeted, personalized treatment of brain and retinal disorders.”

When Kaminsky translated for my low-wattage brain I learned that she’s found a way to use MRI technology to diagnose whether or not someone who has suffered a concussion has experienced the kind of blood vessel leakage into the brain the causes complications like aneurysms, epilepsy, cognitive decline and mood changes.

That’s a huge development when it comes to helping psychiatrists diagnose and treat their patients.

Along with her colleagues at Emagix, she’s also made major progress in finding a way to examine the blood vessels in the human eye to detect the onset of diabetes-related blindness, which turns out to be the number 1 cause of blindness in Canada.

“We’re not changing the machinery,” she said of her work. “It’s a new approach on how to acquire and analyze the data from MRIs.”

The upshot, Kamintsky says, is taking what had formerly been lab findings and using that information in a way that can actually help patients.

The holy grail for the kind of work she is doing is to develop a medication that, once the concussion-related complications are diagnosed, would cure them.

That will be great news for the bantam-aged hockey player and the adult suffering from diabetes.

If it comes to pass, in the strange, roundabout way that life works, they will have Kamintsky to thank, but also a Russian scientist who died before his time.


Byline: John DeMont