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Patrick Connell wins American Heart Association fellowship

By Shawn Hutchins
Rice BIOE News

Rice University bioengineering graduate student Patrick Connell has been awarded a competitive predoctoral fellowship by the American Heart Association’s (AHA) South Central Affiliate.

Patrick Connell_AHA_Award  
MD/PhD student Patrick Connell investigates heart valve disease and treatment using a flow loop bioreactor he created. 

Connell, an M.D./Ph.D. student in the Rice-Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) Medical Scientist Training Program, has completed two years of medical school at BCM and three years of study in Rice’s bioengineering program. His research in Professor Jane Grande-Allen’s laboratory investigates the mechanical and compositional changes of heart valve disease and dysfunction.

The AHA predoctoral fellowship will provide $50,000 of generous support toward his continued engineering analysis of the valvular extracellular matrix that makes up cardiac valve tissue and its behavior as it relates to the physical environments of mitral valve regurgitation.

“There are two main types of mitral valve regurgitation. The most common is mitral valve prolapse –a degenerative condition in which valve leaflets become floppy; thus limiting their ability to seal properly,” explained Connell. “The second medical condition I will investigate that also leads to excessive backflow of blood as the heart pumps is functional mitral regurgitation, which is caused by malformations to the geometry of the papillary muscles and chordae, or heart strings.”

Connell’s in depth investigations to characterize and remodel valve tissue and the pathological conditions that cause and facilitate disease and dysfunction will be carried out through in vitro organ culture studies. Two powerful, distinctive bioreactor systems called the Rice University Flow Loop System (RUFLS) and the Methodist Hospital Left Heart Simulator (in the laboratory of collaborator Dr. Stephen Little) will work in tandem to evaluate the biomechanical properties and ECM remodeling of mitral valves in various disease states.

The completion of Connell’s studies will combine the biomechanical data from the bioreactor systems and correlate the information with clinical findings of valve tissue and disease, as well as previous research in extracellular matrix structure and function from the Grande-Allen lab, to develop a robust computational model.

“Ultimately, this computational model will enable our lab to map changes in valve tissues over time, and possibly provide insight into how valve diseases start, progress, or if they could be prevented,” said Connell. “Future models can also be developed to investigate models of surgical repair for mitral valve disease.”

Connell has a B.S. in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University. He hopes to use the combined M.D./Ph.D. degrees to conduct basic and translational research in cardiac tissue engineering while treating patients as a pediatric cardiologist.