An assistant professor at Binghamton University received a $500,000 grant to study human cardiac cells.
Tracy Hookway, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, received the five year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to learn more about different relationships between cells that control heartbeat speed, according to an article published by BingUNews. This grant was given through the Early Career Development (CAREER) program, an NSF program that aims to support early-career academics who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education,” as described on their website.
Hookway, who works in the biomedical engineering department, received the grant for her work in interactions between neural and cardiac cells. She spoke about how the research could help to advance the treatment of cardiac diseases.
“Long term with this project, we can have models with healthy hearts, or diseased hearts and people who have different neuropathy where the neurons actually don’t connect to the heart very well, or they force the heart to behave in an unwanted way,” Hookway said. “With something like arrhythmia, the neurons are firing at an inappropriate rhythm, and that would lead to disease. We can understand a lot more about that, and maybe help develop drugs.”
In addition to research, the grant statement includes plans for education and community outreach. Aimed at high school and undergraduate students, the goal of the program is to combine research and educational interests by designing lessons involving stem cell function and cardiovascular anatomy, as well as tissue engineering and biomanufacturing, as stated in the grant. Specifically, Hookway said she plans to develop science-based games as a “centerpiece” in community outreach efforts in local school districts, according to a statement from BingUNews.
Hookway discussed what initially brought her to cardiovascular research.
“I have been interested in cardiovascular research for a long time,” Hookway said. “I have several family members who have been affected by various forms of cardiovascular disease, and that sort of kick-started my interest in trying to study what goes wrong and how we can fix it. And so within the context of my lab here at [BU], I’ve been interested in engineering these models.”
In order to supply the body with enough blood during times of activity and times of rest, the heart modulates pumping speed as determined by neural cells, Hookway explained. In order to research how these two cell types interact, Hookway’s lab places cardiomyocytes — cells that control the contraction of the heart — and neural cells in 3D-engineered structures, the grant statement explained. According to Hookway, in the past, bioengineered models of human tissue have tended to be limited to singular cell types, and as a result, understanding of how these cell types interact is limited.
Hookway described how she would address these gaps.
“Our body is filled with complex cell types,” Hookway said. “Each one of our tissues, heart included, is made up of many different types of cells, and, when the field right now is trying to build these engineered models, they only have one single type. My interest in cardiovascular tissue and seeing this gap in the field is why I wrote this grant, to try to bring neurons and cardiomyocytes together.”
According to the statement, the research aims to gain a clearer understanding of how neurons connect to heart cells and examine how the neural cells improve heart functionality. Hookway plans to grow cardiac tissue under variable electrical conditions to see if this electrical stimulation improves stress tolerance.
Hookway’s research aims to use bioengineering solutions to create future therapies for heart problems and develop a drug screening program, the grant stated.
Marshia Mizan, a sophomore majoring in nursing, connected the research to what she is currently studying in class.
“We’re learning about the heart right now in anatomy,” Mizan said.
Nigel Slon, a junior majoring in mathematics, weighed in on how he thought the research would affect the University as a whole.
“It’s interesting and good for the University,” Nigel said. “The University is trying to take a step toward a research focus, so it’s good that the professor is getting this grant, but I feel like only nursing and pre-med will be directly affected.”