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Getting Started...

The heart is a magnificent organ –simple in function, yet intricate in composition. Whenever I see the heart at work lying exposed on the operating table, I find myself deeply awed by its beauty and elegance. At first glance, the heart appears so vulnerable, but it is in this deceiving simplicity that this tough pump works so efficiently to circulate the blood within our bodies.

I discovered my interest in the heart at a young age, one that continues to grow every time I enter the operating room. In conducting research with my mentor, Dr. Rosemary Kelly, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the VA hospital, I’ve found a perfect blending of my fascination with the heart and cardiac surgery as well as my desire for learning and new challenges. Dr. Kelly is currently interested in the effects of revascularization of the chronic hibernating myocardium on the reversal of reduction in regional function and normalization of bioenergetic adaptations of the mitochondria. While this seems like a mouthful, it’s actually quite a comprehensible concept. As a surgeon by profession, she is interested in learning why the heart conditions of some patients are significantly bettered following revascularization or cardiac bypass procedure, while others remain constant or worsen. It is known that in patients with chronic ischemia, cardiac muscle cells revert to a chronic “hibernating? state, neither dying nor functioning at normal rates. Dr. Kelly hypothesizes that the ability of these cells to regain function after revascularization has something to do with the mitochondria. To test this hypothesis in an animal model, Dr. Kelly induced ischemia in pigs with the placement of an occluder in the LAD followed by revascularization after several weeks and a series of tests to identify similarities and differences between successful and unsuccessful cases. The goal is to identify specific uncoupling proteins that may be significant factors in determining success rates.

To complement Dr. Kelly’s study, I will try to conduct a cell-based model with the help of Dr. Jesus Cabrera to see whether the results found at the organism level can be replicated at the cellular level. I will begin by growing smooth muscle cells in hypoxic and normal conditions, testing for differences in protein content and expression levels, and seeing whether cells grown in hypoxic conditions can regain cell function. I will also attempt to culture cardiomyocytes, a formidable challenge, as these cells tend to become fibroblast and lose function soon after they are collected.

As I delve deeper into the research lab, I find that I have many more questions than I will probably have time to answer. I wonder about how to effectively isolate cardiomyocytes and culture cardiomyocytes for a long enough period so that actual tests can be conducted. I wonder what exact proteins and differences can be found between cells that can regain function and ones that don’t and whether certain drugs can have an effect on this ability. While I know research takes great quantities of time and patience to complete, I am excited to continue working in the lab this semester. I am motivated by the knowledge and experiences I will undoubtedly gain and hopeful about the major implications this study can have for the future of bypass surgery.

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