Heart Institute hosts first research symposium

The USF Health Heart Institute recently hosted its inaugural scientific conference, marking another milestone in the young Institute’s short history and setting a standard for future collaborative work that seeks to halt cardiovascular disease.

The 1st Annual Scientific Colloquium was held Sept. 24 on the USF campus and welcomed several dozen faculty researchers from throughout the USF research community.

A photo showing at the inaugural Heart Institute Scientific Colloquium are, from left, Sam Wickline, Lee Sweeney, Sami Noujaim and Charles Lockwood.

At the inaugural Heart Institute Scientific Colloquium are, from left, Sam Wickline, Lee Sweeney, Sami Noujaim and Charles Lockwood.

“This is a key moment for the USF Health Heart Institute and we are proud to launch an event that showcases impactful cardiovascular research,” said Samuel Wickline, MD, professor and the Tampa General Hospital Endowed Chair for Cardiovascular Research, interim chair of the USF Health Department of Cardiovascular Sciences, and director of the USF Health Heart Institute.

“This inaugural Heart Institute Scientific Colloquium welcomed scientists from across our field to hear about new approaches to heart research. We also know this event is a great example of our collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to scientific discovery. Real progress in cardiovascular research happens when the scientific community works together.”

The Heart Institute in the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine (MCOM) conducts several collaborative projects with researchers from Duke, Stanford, Albert Einstein College of Medicine (NY), University of Michigan, Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and others, he said.

“This Colloquium offers a glimpse of that, showing how our Heart Institute researchers are working with experts from other institutions.”

The keynote speaker for the Colloquium was Lee Sweeney, PhD, professor of pharmacology and therapeutics and director of the Myology Institute at the University of Florida. His talk, titled “The Dilated Cardiomyopathy Associated with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy,” addressed ways to improve heart failure in children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), the most common fatal genetic condition in children. DMD affects mostly boys and is caused by a genetic mutation that prevents the body from producing dystrophin, a protein essential for strong muscle fibers, including those by the heart.

A photo with Dr. Lee Sweeney at podium presenting his work.

Dr. Lee Sweeney presents his work on cardiomyopathy associated with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

“Dr. Sweeney’s work dovetails beautifully with efforts taking place in the Heart Institute,” Dr. Wickline said.

In addition to Dr. Sweeney, two current Heart Institute research scientists offered overviews of their current research: Jerome Breslin, PhD, and Sami Noujaim, PhD.

Dr. Breslin, professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology at MCOM, presented “Targeting S1P Receptors to Reduce Inflammation and Microvascular Permeability.”

“Our work focuses on finding new ways to reduce the negative impact of inflammation after injury or during disease,” Dr. Breslin said. “Specifically, we are identifying the molecular signaling pathways that initiate, sustain, and resolve leakage of plasma proteins from the blood into the surrounding tissues, which is what causes swelling. To date our work suggests a key role for a compound known as sphingosine-1-phosphate, which is normally released by circulating blood cells, as a key contributor to maintain the walls of blood vessels and reduce plasma protein leakage.”

And Dr. Noujaim, associate professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology at MCOM, presented “Antiarrhythmic Block of Potassium Inward Rectifiers in Atrial Fibrillation.”

“Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common arrhythmia seen in the clinic and is increasingly recognized as a disease of aging, and as a significant cause of morbidity and mortality,” Dr. Noujaim said. “For instance, it has been found that AF independently increases mortality and that it is associated with dementia, and is a major risk factor for stroke. AF is very challenging to treat with currently used antiarrhythmic drugs. It has been found that the aberrant working of a class of proteins called cardiac potassium channels perpetuates AF. My lecture showed how we used a widely prescribed antimalarial drug to correct the function of these potassium channels, and consequently stop AF. Our studies used mathematical modeling, and sophisticated experiments, from the level of the single molecule, all the way to the patient’s heart to understand how this antimalarial drug could stop AF and restore the heart’s normal rhythm. We hope that such studies will help us to find a novel class of therapies that can potentially be effective in treating AF.”

A photo of audience looking at presentation slide.

Dr. Lee Sweeney’s work focuses on cardiomyopathy associated with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

The Colloquium was also a celebration of what’s to come, Dr. Wickline said.

“We’ve had a busy year so far with progress on our building in downtown Tampa, great success in recruiting more prominent scientists to our Heart Institute roster, and increases in research funding,” Dr. Wickline said. “This momentum, and these close collaborations, indicate that people are perking up their ears about USF Health, the Heart Institute and all of our developments here.

“But we aren’t stopping here,” he added. “This is an exciting time for cardiovascular disease research and, over the next year, we will see more research emphasis on regenerative medicine, heart failure, bioinformatics, and molecular and functional imaging. As our Heart Institute continues to outfit our building and our team, we continually seek foundational research and philanthropic funding and collaborative opportunities.

“All of this will help us attract the best and the brightest and truly impact cardiovascular disease.”

Photos by Torie Doll, USF Health Communications