Human heart muscle cells are constantly at work – contracting roughly a million times a week in adults.

Jessica Pfleger, a new assistant professor joining the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC’s Center for Vascular and Heart Research on July 1, studies how the heart’s genes are regulated in response to stimulation and stress.

Her laboratory will explore how common risk factors for heart disease – such as obesity, insulin resistance, and high blood pressure – alter gene expression in the heart.

“The heart quickly adapts to stimulating and stressful conditions. In the short-term, these early changes are often adaptive, but the organ can only sustain stress for so long,” said Pfleger, who is also an assistant professor of biological sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Science. “I want to know what genetic and molecular changes are involved when the heart responds to stress and those that drive the long-term maladaptation that ultimately leads to heart disease.”

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, causing about one in four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For more than a decade, Pfleger has been studying how the heart’s energetically demanding muscle cells, called cardiomyocytes, metabolize nutrients and respond to environmental stimuli.

Along with her colleagues, she recently described how a protein that helps regulate energy metabolism and cell growth – FOXO1 – binds to DNA and plays a fundamental role in gene transcription and heart cell growth.

The study, on which she served as the lead author, published last year in Circulation, helps describe how the heart grows in patients with common conditions, such as high blood pressure, and could help researchers develop new drugs. Pfleger’s laboratory will continue to study FOXO1, which plays a crucial role in the development of heart disease in patients with diabetes whose hearts are less sensitive to insulin.

“Insulin is one factor that changes gene expression in the heart, but we are also more broadly interested in investigating the role that diet plays in this process,” Pfleger said.

“We hear about popular diets, like the low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet, but we also know that if you limit fat intake, then you’re less likely to have a heart attack. There are a lot of open questions to explore about how dietary choices and calorie intake influence gene expression in the heart, for better or worse.”

Pfleger is a member of the American Heart Association’s Basic Cardiovascular Sciences Council and the International Society for Heart Research.

Prior to joining Virginia Tech, Pfleger was a research instructor at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in the Center for Translational Medicine. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Temple University, where she explored how certain proteins regulate gene expression in the heart. During her doctoral degree studies in cellular biology and molecular medicine at Rutgers University she focused on bioenergetics and how different fuels affect how heart cells respond to stressors, such as a lack of oxygen. She is originally from New Jersey and completed her bachelor’s degree at Syracuse University.

Pfleger said that she joined the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, in part, due to its growing focus in cardiovascular research.

“The rapid growth of this institute and focus on cardiovascular research really struck me,” Pfleger said. “There’s a lot of interesting and important research happening here right now and I am excited to be part of it.”

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