Rengasayee Veeraraghavan, a scientist in the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute’s Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine, was recently awarded a $231,000 grant by the American Heart Association to develop novel therapies to treat abnormal heart rhythms.

Called the Scientist Development Grant, the award provides funds for a junior faculty member, usually a research assistant professor, who is on the path to independence as a scientist. The research the recipient conducts with the grant funds should provide experimental data to eventually win a major independent federal research grant. Only about 13 percent of proposals in the United States are funded.

“It’s an honor to receive this grant,” said Veeraraghavan, who is currently a postdoctoral associate. “It is very encouraging that the American Heart Association is willing to back my research plans with funding. This is a major step towards a career in independent research.”

Atrial fibrillation – rapid irregular heart rhythm – is the most common type of irregular heartbeat, and it affects 2.2 million Americans by increasing their risk of heart failure and stroke. The condition also costs Americans an estimated $26 billion to treat every year.

“A healthy heart beats at a regular rhythm, with each beat being triggered by a wave of excitation spreading smoothly through the tissue,” Veeraraghavan said, explaining that intercalated disks connect the cardiac cells. “If these intercalated disks are disrupted, conduction can slow and the heart’s rhythm can become highly irregular.”

Veeraraghavan will examine the intercalated disks in precise detail using super-resolution imaging and electron microscopy to determine the exact mechanisms underlying disrupted cardiac conduction.

Atrial fibrillation is also associated with blood vessel dysfunction. If blood vessels leak, fluid can build up in the heart muscle and potentially disrupt the intercalated disks. It’s unclear precisely how blood vessel dysfunction leads to arrhythmia, but Veeraraghavan plans to find out.

“In addition to studying the structure and mechanisms of the intercalated disk, I will test potential antiarrhythmic treatments,” Veeraraghavan said.

The potential therapies come in the form of peptides developed to preserve vascular function and enhance adhesion within the intercalated disk, but not yet tested against arrhythmias.

Veeraraghavan works in the laboratory of Rob Gourdie, a professor and director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute’s Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine. Gourdie developed ACT1, a peptide initially intended to halt protein dysfunction that could further harm already damaged hearts. ACT1 has now been shown to halve healing time of skin wounds and diabetic foot ulcers, and it’s undergoing testing to sensitize treatment-resistant brain cancer cells to chemotherapy.

“Dr. Veeraraghavan’s work is certainly in the spirit of this grant,” said Gourdie. “He’s building on what he has learned in my laboratory, and expanding into a different research realm.”

The grant will partially fund Veeraraghavan’s work for the next three years, at the end of which he should have the preliminary data necessary to support funding for further research.

“This type of grant is highly competitive and supports highly promising cardiovascular and stroke research scientists at the beginning of their careers between initial research training and complete research independence,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “Dr. Veeraraghavan is the perfect candidate for this award and very deserving of this grant. I am certain that he will continue to contribute to major new findings at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.”

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