Right Turn: Don’t go breaking my heart (epigenetics could if it tried)

Author: Guest, 05/08/15

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By Camila Londono

Camila Londono is currently an intern at CCRM, taking a break from working on her PhD at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto under the supervision of Dr. Alison McGuigan. Her research focuses on understanding what governs the coordination of motion in groups of cells. She holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in Engineering Science from the University of Toronto.

Not that I’m biased, but graduate students have many great qualities: intelligence, creativity, persistence. A competition sponsored by the American Association of Advanced Sciences (AAAS) and Science magazine proves that they are also great dancers.

The “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest, run yearly by biologist and science journalist John Bohannon (who you can watch on the TED website proposing the replacement of PowerPoint presentations with dancers “for the sake of the American economy”), challenges PhD students from all fields to communicate their research using not journal articles, not conference talks or posters, but dance.

In one of my favorite videos from 2014, Ina Kirmes, a PhD student at the Institute of Molecular Biology in Germany, explains how cardiac cells change their character after a heart attack. You can watch her PhD dance in the video at the end of this post.

Heart attacks are a particularly challenging problem in regenerative medicine. When a vessel in the heart becomes blocked, the loss of oxygen results in massive cell death. Paradoxically, despite the importance of restoring blood flow quickly to prevent more cell death, this reperfusion results in significant damage, as oxidative and inflammatory signals spread through larger areas around the original injury.

Unfortunately, these signals promote the formation of scar tissue, which makes it extremely difficult for the heart to fully recover its function. Ina’s video highlights one way in which this problematic consequence comes about: Surviving cardiac cells undergo epigenetic changes which permanently alter their gene expression, which leads them to produce transcription factors that cause scarring. She also teases us with a glimpse of an intervention that could overturn these epigenetic changes.

Epigenetic changes affect gene expression not by changing the underlying genetic material, like mutations do, but by altering the way DNA is packed into cells. A study from 2008 found that inhibiting histone deacetylation (what the girl wearing black does in the video) 48 hours after reperfusion could reduce the size of an infarct in mice.

More and more evidence has been found recently about the importance of epigenetics in development of, and recovery from, major cardiovascular events, like strokes and heart attacks, and the journal Life Sciences just released a full special issue on the influence of epigenetics in cardiovascular disease.

I must admit, though, none of these articles are quite as compelling as that dance.

 

Our regular feature, Right Turn, appears every Friday and we invite you to submit your own blog to info(at)ccrm.ca. We encourage you to be creative and use the right (!) side of your brain. We dare you to make us laugh! Right Turn features cartoons, photos, videos and other content to amuse, educate and encourage discussion.

As always, we welcome your feedback in the comment section.

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Guest

Signals Blog accepts guest blog posts on topics relevant to stem cells and regenerative medicine, as well as submissions for its Right Turn Friday feature. See http://www.signalsblog.ca/about/ for more information.
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