The human body is made of trillions of cells. While scientists have uncovered the secrets of cell function and structures, less well understood are the processes underlying cellular interaction and communication. 

One emerging theory, called ephaptic coupling, suggests that cells emit micro-electrical fields, allowing them to communicate with nearby cells – even when they don’t share direct connections through conventional molecular bridges or channels. This bold idea deviates from the widely accepted notion that cells transmit electrical signals only through connections called gap junctions.

To explore the unsolved mystery of other potential sources of cellular electrical communication, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC is hosting the world’s first Ephaptic Coupling Conference in Roanoke, Virginia, from May 5 to 7.

“This first-of-its kind international meeting will provide a unique opportunity to bring high-caliber biomedical experts from across disciplines to share novel discoveries and advance this evolving area of study,” said Michael Friedlander, vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “We are delighted to host not only conventional national and international biomedical research conferences in Roanoke, but also to host these types of meetings that are first of a kind and pushing the boundaries of science, as well.”

Organized by the institute’s Center for Heart and Reparative Medicine Research, the conference was developed by Steven Poelzing, an associate professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics.

“Understanding what channels cells use to communicate provides the basis for developing new treatments and medications to address common ailments. In my lab, we’re applying this research to identify treatments for ischemic heart disease, arrhythmias, and sudden cardiac death, while others might use this knowledge to develop treatments for neurological disorders,” said Poelzing. “Our goal for this year’s conference is to share what we’ve discovered and forecast where we go from here.”

Poelzing first encountered ephaptic coupling in his lab more than 15 years ago. While researching causes of sudden cardiac death, his team wanted to see what would happen if heart cells lost their gap junctions. Poelzing was surprised to discover that the rodents with only half of the gap junctions as their healthy counterparts were just as likely to live normal lives. It was clear that heart cells in mice could maintain electrical signals using an unknown mechanism.

Robert Gourdie, director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute Center for Heart and Reparative Medicine Research, came to a similar realization in the early 1990s when he found that conductive heart cells in healthy birds naturally have very few of the protein building blocks that make up gap junctions. Gourdie, who is also a professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, was subsequently further challenged by observations that when gap junctions were removed entirely in genetically modified mice, heart function remained more or less intact.

Once a skeptic of ephaptic coupling, Gourdie was no longer fully sold on the previously described role of gap junctions, either. This led to his next discovery in 2011, when Gourdie and his doctoral student at the time, Matthew Rhett, found a conductive pocket of sodium channels situated near the gap junction. Gourdie theorized that this structure, which he coined as the perinexus, could be involved in ephaptic coupling. In a paper published in eLife last year, it was shown that the sodium channels in the perinexus could indeed couple myocytes, a type of heart cell, together while contributing to the passage of electrical rhythms that drive the heart beat.

“Researchers continue to debate whether or not ephaptic coupling is real and, if so, if it’s important, but there is still a lot that we don’t know about how electricity moves through and coordinates function in cells throughout the body,” said Gourdie. “If we’re on the right path, we have the potential to change how we think about electrophysiology. This could help us develop safer and more effective anti-arrhythmic medications used by millions of Americans, for example.”

In addition to Gourdie and Poelzing, researchers from across the world have been invited to present their research, including:

  • Lothar A. Blatter, a professor of physiology and biophysics at Rush University.
  • Dominique Durand, the E.L. Linsedth Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Neurosciences, and director of the neural engineering center at Case Western Reserve University.
  • Sandor Gyorke, a professor of physiology and cell biology at Ohio State University.
  • Gregory Hoeker, a research assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.
  • James Keener, a mathematics professor and adjunct bioengineering professor at the University of Utah.
  • Divya Kernik, a biomedical engineering doctoral candidate at the University of California, Davis.
  • Jan Kucera, a professor of physiology at the University of Bern.
  • Soo Yeun Lee, a scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
  • Joyce Tzychiao Lin, a professor at the California Polytechnic State University’s Department of Mathematics.
  • Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.
  • Morten Schak Nielsen, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Biomedical Sciences.
  • Arkady Pertsov, a professor of pharmacology at SUNY Upstate Medical University.
  • Przemyslaw Radwanski, an assistant professor in Ohio State University’s College of Pharmacy. 
  • Alena Talkachova, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.
  • Rengasayee Veeraraghavan, an assistant professor at Ohio State University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.
  • Sarah Vermij, a doctoral candidate at the University of Bern’s Institute for Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine.
  • Ning Wei, a visiting assistant professor at Perdue University’s Department of Mathematics.
  • Seth Weinberg, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.

The Ephaptic Coupling Conference will be held in Roanoke every two years. This year’s conference is at the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center. 

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