The rhythmic beating of a healthy human heart depends on a complex and constant series of events – electrical currents pulsing across the heart muscle, fueled by energy-producing chemical reactions within each of its cells.

But when the heart suffers disease or trauma, those mechanisms and even the heart itself are changed, crippling the heart’s normal function and often leading to heart failure.

“A healthy heart has an amazing capability to balance energy demand with energy supply,” said Junco Warren, a new assistant professor joining the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC on July 1. “But in the failing heart, the balance is broken. Though the body can get any amount of fuel it wants, the heart starves. The problem lies in the orchestration of the proper rhythm and tone of fuel delivery and burning.”

Warren’s research will focus on those changes in the failing heart, particularly metabolic changes and the pivotal moment when a heart moves from being impaired but functioning to struggling to do its job. About 6.2 million adults in the United States have heart failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Warren’s interests combine her lifelong passion for nutrition and her experience in cardiovascular science as a doctoral candidate. She will also hold an appointment as an assistant professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Warren initially studied economics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, but each time one of her parents suffered a health problem, her interests veered toward biomedical science out of a desire to understand and help them.

“My parents are always my starting point,” she said.

When Warren was in graduate school her mother developed heart disease, and that steered her to cardiovascular science and the connection between heart health and metabolism.

The molecular and metabolic mechanisms behind heart failure remain largely unknown, but Warren’s recent research has begun to identify them.

Warren is a corresponding author of a study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2018, which showed how a certain gene involved in heart development also plays a key role in regulating cardiac function and energy production in heart cells. Evidence suggests that reduction in energy weakens the heart’s ability to contract, setting up a vicious cycle of energy starvation that can lead to heart failure. Just when the heart needs more energy to survive, its ability to produce energy is hampered by its response to stress.

Warren believes understanding the mechanisms behind heart failure lays the foundation for management of cardiac diseases – including through nutrition – and longer life for those affected by them.

Warren comes to Virginia Tech from the University of Utah School of Medicine, where she has been a research assistant professor in cardiovascular medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine. Previously, she held postdoctoral researcher posts at the university’s Nora Eccles Cardiovascular Research and Training Institute and at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University.

She earned her doctorate from the State University of New York Upstate Medical Center.

Warren’s honors include the Harold. S. Geneen Charitable Trust Award for Coronary Heart Disease Research in 2018, and a Basic Cardiovascular Sciences Outstanding Early Career Investigator Award from the American Heart Association in 2016. She was also recently awarded a new four-year, $2 million National Institutes of Health research grant for her and her colleagues to study the role of a regulatory molecule called Perm-1 in heart muscle cells and how it is affected in heart failure. 

She was drawn to the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute as the ideal place to continue her investigation.

“Virginia Tech and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute have a great reputation for research,” Warren said. In addition to the great research environment and colleagues, as a former economics’ student, Warren was also drawn to the research institute’s role in boosting the Roanoke Valley economy with hundreds of jobs and an active grant and contract portfolio of $160 million. “I sensed a really positive energy there.”

Written by Matt Chittum

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