The human heart has fascinated second-year medical student Christopher Jensen ever since he first flipped through anatomy books as a child. Now, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has given Jensen a special opportunity to pursue his passion.
Jensen is one of 68 medical students from across the U.S. chosen to take part in the HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program. This program gives medical students a chance to try their hand at research by offering them funding, mentorship and a full year to explore the medical research project of their choice.
Recently, I spoke with Jensen about his interest in the heart and his HHMI project. “I was homeschooled,” Jensen told me. “My parents bought me books on biology and I thought that anatomy - the heart in particular - was fascinating.”
Later, when Jensen studied biology at school, his interest grew: “The more I learned about the heart, the more I wanted to understand it better. I was in awe and wonder of how this one organ could supply blood for the whole body."
Jensen's curiosity about the heart led him to Stanford where he met his HHMI mentor, Y. Joseph Woo, MD, chair of Stanford’s Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery. “When I saw Woo's work I was enthralled,” Jensen said.
Jensen’s one-year research project with Woo will focus on a growth factor, called Neuregulin-1ß, that plays an essential role in the development of heart, skin and brain cells. "We’ve already demonstrated neuregulin’s ability to rescue and regenerate heart muscle immediately after a heart attack,” Jensen told me.
In these studies, Neuregulin-1ß is given during surgery as an injection to the heart. This delivery method prevents neuregulin from acting on the entire body (which could have negative side effects) but it limits this treatment to surgical procedures. Jensen’s goal is to develop a non-surgical way to target heart cells with the neuregulin treatment so it can quickly be given to a patient after they have a heart attack.
Over the next year, Jensen and Woo will test a special hydrogel that could provide a way to transport neuregulin through the veins to targeted tissues in the heart. The hydrogel, Jensen explained, forms a gummy, slow-dissolving solid when it reaches the heart. This therapy could help cardiac surgeons target heart cells with Neuregulin-1ß for long periods of time whenever the treatment is needed. “This would be a phenomenal advancement and could pave the way for minimally invasive therapies in the hospital,” Jensen said.
“I’m excited about this research,” Jensen told me. “It could lead to other work in the field or a career in cardiac surgery and research.” It also possible that, one day, it could lead to a therapy to treat patients suffering from heart failure.
Previously: A new era for stem cells in cardiac medicine? A simple, effective way to generate patient-specific heart muscle cells
Photo courtesy of Christopher Jensen