NSF Grant Supports Collaborative Research on Early Heart Development

July 6, 2021 - Biomedical engineers from UC Irvine and Oregon Health and Science University are collaborating on research to better understand how blood flow and genetic processes influence early heart development. Their project has been awarded two, three-year collaborative grants from the National Science Foundation Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems totaling $650,000.

Congenital heart defects are present at birth and can affect the structure of a baby’s heart and the way it works. About 1 in every 4 babies born with a heart defect has a critical congenital heart defect and will need surgery or other procedures in the first year of life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why most defects come about and how they eventually lead to heart failure remains unknown.

UCI’s Dr. Arash Kheradvar, professor of biomedical engineering, will join with OHSU’s Sandra Rugonyi, professor of biomedical engineering, to conduct the research. Kheradvar explains that although scientists speculate that both blood flow and genes contribute to heart development, it is not yet known how they interact with each other and the synergistic roles they play in heart malformations.

“Using advanced imaging methods and computational simulations, our teams plan to unravel how altered blood flow affects programmed genetic processes, and conversely how altering genetic processes changes blood flow, leading to hearts with defects,” said Kheradvar.

“Our research will shed light into developmental origins of heart disease, namely how the environment and maternal influences ultimately affect the development of a baby inside the womb. Findings will help guide approaches to preventing and treating heart defects in utero,” said Rugonyi.

Using two avian models of heart development, the research has three main objectives: to determine blood flow and flow-induced stresses during normal and aberrant cardiac formation through advanced engineering methods; identify and quantify cellular responses to normal and abnormal heart development by generating spatiotemporal maps of cardiac adaptation; and determine the genetic and epigenetic adaptations in cardiac tissues using sequencing technologies.

More broadly, research results will provide fundamental knowledge on embryonic heart development, help with strategies to improve diagnosis of heart defects and preventing heart malformations, and eventually guide early fetal interventions to repair cardiac defects and promote healthy heart function.

The award also supports outreach activities involving rising high school sophomores, juniors and seniors in California and Oregon. UCI’s ASPIRE (Access Summer Program to Inspire, Recruit and Enrich) will be implemented at OHSU, and researchers will engage students in scientific activities teaching them about heart development and helping them cultivate team science skills through a collaborative project. Recruiting students for these activities is expected to begin by the end of 2021.

– Lori Brandt