Given that the heart is the most important organ in the body, there are still many unknowns about how it works.
For the past five years, as a faculty member at Binghamton University, Assistant Professor Tracy Hookway has received funding from the National Institutes of Health and other funding sources to create 2D and 3D models of human heart cells and investigate their function. I was.
She continues that important work thanks to a five-year, $500,000 National Science Foundation Career Award exploring the role of autonomic nerve stimulation on the function of artificial heart tissue. CAREER grants support early-career faculty who may serve as academic role models in research and teaching.
Hookway studies interactions between sympathetic neurons that speed up the heart rate and parasympathetic neurons that slow it down. She calls it the “fight or flight” response and the “rest and digest” response. Like her Fitbit and smartwatches, measuring heart rate variability is a key indicator of overall heart health.
“If you look at published research in the field, you’ll see that this particular cell population receives little attention, yet it plays an important role in keeping the heart beating consistently,” says Thomas J. Hookway, a faculty member at Watson College, said. Faculty of Engineering, Faculty of Applied Sciences, Department of Biomedical Engineering.
“Electrical signals from the nervous system stimulate specific locations in the heart, but neurons throughout the heart help fine-tune the heart rate.”
She sees several reasons why this kind of heart research isn’t being done as often. For one thing, bioengineers have largely focused on narrowing our understanding of human cells down to the basics.
“It’s a great starting point,” she said. “We’ve been there for 10 or 20 years, and we started to realize that we could only reproduce functionality up to a certain point. Simple is too simple, and what else impacts functionality? “
Also, because she’s working on a human tissue model, heart cells are particularly difficult to obtain. It cannot be extended with culture. It is only in the last 5-10 years that stem cell-derived populations have started to gain momentum and are difficult and expensive to do. ”
Hookway hopes that a better understanding of the push-pull of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems will improve the accuracy of laboratory models of heart cells. That knowledge could be useful in heart transplantation, neurodegenerative disease, stem cell therapy, and pharmaceutical research.
“Hepatic and cardiac toxicity are the two biggest reasons why drugs fail, so pharmaceutical researchers need a better platform to test all candidate drug compounds,” she said. . “Sometimes it’s done in cell culture, sometimes it’s done in animal models, but there’s a big gap between animal models and human responses.” The human-based stem cell model she’s developing is key. maybe.
As part of the educational component of the NSF grant, Hookway will develop game-based educational modules for high school and undergraduate students that incorporate tissue engineering, cardiovascular physiology, biomanufacturing, and stem cell biology. She loves games and sees this as a good way to develop an interest in science.
“We want to specifically target some of the rural communities in our area who don’t have easy access to some of the programs we have on campus,” she said.
Hookway is grateful for the support not only from BME colleagues and students, but from Watson College and Binghamton University as a whole. She is especially grateful to the Research Division’s Strategic Research Initiatives and her Commit to Submit program in her office for supporting the NSF CAREER application.
“It helped keep me on track and definitely hit the milestones to get this done,” she said.
She also appreciates that the NSF chose her when she first tried for the CAREER grant. I think it gives her confidence. Also, some of the basic questions we want to ask can be answered with this grant, giving us the flexibility to pursue collaborations more easily. ”