Three graduate students in Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program (TBMH) have been awarded prestigious American Heart Association Predoctoral Fellowships to support their research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

Meghan Sedovy, a graduate research assistant in the Johnstone Lab, and Kari Stanley and Kenneth Young, graduate research assistants in the Smyth and Lamouille labs, were each awarded two-year, $65,000 fellowships.

The awards enhance the research and clinical training of promising students seeking careers as scientists, physician-scientists, or clinician scientists interested in improving global cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and brain health.

“These are very well-earned, competitive awards for Kenny, Meghan, and Kari,” said Robert Gourdie, Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund Eminent Scholar in Heart Reparative Medicine Research at the Fralin Biomedical Research institute. “The fellowships speak to their own abilities and also to the quality of training they’re receiving in our labs at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and mentorship from the faculty in the Center for Vascular and Heart Research.” Gourdie is the center’s director.

Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology, added, “It is highly unusual for such a number of students in one relatively small program to be awarded such highly competitive American Heart Association awards at the same time. This type of success at the national level is yet another indicator of the quality and national recognition of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, its Center for Vascular and Heart Research under the leadership of Dr. Gourdie, and the TBMH Graduate Program under the leadership of Steve Poelzing and Michelle Theus.”

Sedovy’s project with Scott Johnstone, assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, focuses on wound healing after vascular surgery. Surgery can damage endothelial cells lining the inside of blood vessels, which can increase risk of blood clots and cause new blockages. Her research suggests that Connexin 43, a protein involved in communication between cells, is crucial to the speed of the healing process. She has developed a mouse model to study how changes to the protein might facilitate healing.

“Through my research, I hope to understand how to keep endothelial cells healthy, even under stressful conditions,” Sedovy said.

Stanley’s research, mentored by Associate Professor James Smyth and Assistant Professor Samy Lamouille, will explore how respiratory viral infection affects intercellular communication in the context of both lung fibrosis and electrical coupling of heart muscle cells. Connections called gap junctions allow essentially all cells in the body to communicate with their neighbors.

In the heart, gap junctions are central for propagation of electrical impulses that trigger each heartbeat. When gap junctions are disrupted, it can lead to arrhythmia and, in extreme cases, to sudden cardiac arrest. Gap junctions also propagate antiviral immune responses, however, and so are increasingly recognized as a prime target for viruses when they infect a cell.

Stanley is seeking to find common mechanisms that affect gap junction function in lung epithelial cells and heart muscle cells during respiratory virus infection. She also will examine which viral proteins target gap junctions and, in doing, potentially identify strategies to restore cell communication therapeutically.

“Understanding the mechanisms by which viruses disrupt intercellular communication will inform development of therapies aimed at protecting against pulmonary fibrosis and arrhythmia while potentially limiting viral replication,” Stanley said.

Young is an M.D.+Ph.D. candidate in the TBMH program and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Smyth and Lamouille are co-mentoring him in his research targeting intercellular communication in the heart through gap junctions.

Research in the Smyth and Lamouille labs has identified a small gap junction protein Young believes could restore normal electrical communication in diseased hearts, preventing or treating deadly arrhythmias. His research aims to study the physical attributes, location within cells, and gap junction regulation of this novel protein.

“Understanding this will allow for the identification of pharmacological targets through which we can potentially relieve the burden of heart disease,” Young said.

All three recipients expressed their deep gratitude to the American Heart Association, their mentors, and everyone who has supported their research.

“I am very grateful for every opportunity that continues to foster my growth,” Young said.

“The goal of this research is to make discoveries that improve modern medicine and have a positive impact on people’s lives,” Sedovy said. “This fellowship will help me train to be the best scientist I can be.”

Share this story