Three doctoral students in the fields of translational biology, medicine and health received grants from the American Heart Association | VTx

Three graduate students from Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program (TBMH) have been awarded American Heart Association predoctoral fellowships to support their research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

Meghan Sedovy, research assistant at the Johnstone lab, and Kari Stanley and Kenneth Young, research assistants at the Smyth and Lamouille labs, each received two-year grants of $65,000.

The awards support the research and clinical education of promising students pursuing careers as scientists, physician-scientists or clinical scientists interested in improving global cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and brain health.

“These are very well-deserved, competitive awards for Kenny, Meghan and Kari,” said Robert Gourdie, Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund Eminent Scholar in Heart Reparative Medicine Research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “The grants speak to their own ability and also to the quality of the education they receive in our laboratories at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the mentoring of faculty at the Center for Vascular and Cardiac Research.” Gourdie is the director of the center.

Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and vice president of health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech, added, “It is highly unusual for such a number of students in a relatively small program to be recognized with such highly competitive American Heart Association awards will at the same time. This type of success at the national level is another indicator of the quality and national recognition of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, its Center for Vascular and Cardiac Research led by Dr. Gourdie and the TBMH graduate program led by Steve Poelzing and Michelle Theus.”

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Sedovy’s project with Scott Johnstone, assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, focuses on wound healing after vascular surgery. Surgery can damage endothelial cells that line the insides of blood vessels, which can increase the risk of blood clots and cause new blockages. Her research suggests that connexin 43, a protein involved in communication between cells, is critical to the speed of the healing process. She has developed a mouse model to study how changes to the protein could facilitate healing.

“Through my research, I hope to understand how to keep endothelial cells healthy even under stressful conditions,” Sedovy said.

Stanley’s research, which will be supervised by Associate Professor James Smyth and Assistant Professor Samy Lamouille, will examine how respiratory viral infection affects intercellular communication associated with pulmonary fibrosis and electrical coupling of cardiac muscle cells. Connections called gap junctions enable essentially all cells in the body to communicate with their neighbors.

In the heart, gap junctions are central to the propagation of electrical impulses that trigger each heartbeat. A disruption of the gap junctions can lead to cardiac arrhythmias and, in extreme cases, to sudden cardiac arrest. However, gap junctions also propagate antiviral immune responses and are therefore increasingly recognized as a prime target for viruses when infecting a cell.

Stanley is searching for common mechanisms that affect gap junction function in lung epithelial cells and myocardial cells during respiratory viral infection. She will also study which viral proteins target gap junctions, potentially identifying strategies to therapeutically restore cell communication.

“Understanding the mechanisms by which viruses disrupt intercellular communication will inform the development of therapies aimed at protecting against pulmonary fibrosis and arrhythmia while potentially limiting viral replication,” Stanley said.

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Young is MD+Ph.D. Candidate in the TBMH program and Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Smyth and Lamouille are co-supervising him on his research targeting intercellular communication in the heart through gap junctions.

Research in Smyth and Lamouille’s labs has identified a small gap-junction protein that Young believes could restore normal electrical communication in diseased hearts and prevent or treat fatal arrhythmias. His research aims to study the physical properties, location within cells and gap-junction regulation of this novel protein.

“Understanding this allows us to identify pharmacological targets that may allow us to reduce the burden of heart disease,” Young said.

All three recipients expressed their deep gratitude to the American Heart Association, their mentors and everyone who supported their research.

“I am very grateful for any opportunity that further fuels my growth,” said Young.

“The goal of this research is to make discoveries that will improve modern medicine and have a positive impact on people’s lives,” Sedovy said. “This scholarship will help me develop to be the best scientist I can be.”

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