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American Heart Association awards three fellowships
to Rice University undergrads

Grande-Allen lab research in valve disease supported by
summer funding sweep 

By Shawn Hutchins
Rice BIOE News

As people age, or as a result of birth defects or infections, heart valves can become damaged by the accumulation of calcium deposits within the tissue. Heart disease can also change valve geometry, and thus limit its ability to seal properly as the heart pumps.

This summer Rice University undergraduate students in Professor Jane Grande-Allen’s lab have been working under three American Heart Association (AHA) fellowships to analyze irregularities in valve tissue composition and the mechanical conditions that occur due to structural defects.

Rice University undergraduate students (left to right) Gabrielle Fatora, Andrew Stout and Erica Kim won summer research fellowships from the American Heart Association's South Central Affiliate to conduct research in heart valve disease. 

The fellowships were awarded by AHA’s South Central Affiliate to bioengineering juniors Gabrielle Fatora and Erica Kim, and Andrew Stout, a senior in materials science. Both Fatora and Stout are investigating the contributing factors to calcific aortic-valve disease (CAVD), and Kim is investigating the effects of reversing functional mitral regurgitation (FMR) in a physiological flow loop bioreactor.

Kim is working with Patrick Connell, a bioengineering graduate student of the MD/PhD Medical Scientist Training Program jointly run by Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University. Using the Rice University Flow Loop System (RUFLS), a bioreactor developed in the Grande-Allen lab by Connell, they are investigating if the remodeling of FMR valves can be reversed by placing the diseased valves in their natural control geometry.

Fatora is working with doctoral graduate student Matthew Sapp to evaluate how a lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, encourages blood vessel development and possibly causes the formation of calcific nodules by valvular interstitial cells. Her overall aim is to develop a 3-D culture system that uses layered filter paper for bioassays and to model concentrations of CAVD in cell cultures.

Recent studies from the Grande-Allen lab have demonstrated an association between valve calcification and hyaluronan imbalances in diseased heart valves. In working with postdoctoral fellow Varun Krishnamurthy, Stout is investigating the TGFbeta signaling pathway, specifically the protein kinase ERK1/2, and its associated activities in the regulation of hyaluronan production and degradation by valve interstitial cells.

While at Rice, Grande-Allen, a professor of bioengineering, has advised 19 doctoral graduate students, more than 100 undergraduate students and five postdoctoral fellows. Research in her group at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative has been supported by four generous AHA grants to study and fight heart valve disease. To date, seven of her students have received predoctoral or postdoctoral fellowships.