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Student researchers: Beating hearts to fight disease

Abertay University

22 July 2014

In a research lab in Scotland, ‘human hearts' are nestled in incubators, beating by themselves as scientists pore over them...

This isn’t the beginning of a science fiction movie – it's part of pioneering research at Abertay University in Dundee, which aims to fight heart disease and find the cause of sudden adult death syndrome.

The replica human hearts are made from stem cells and are just 1mm in diameter, beating at a rate of about 30 contractions per minute.

They are completely healthy to begin with so that scientists can ‘create’ diseases in them, and carry out advanced tests that would not yet be safe for human trials.

Led by Professor Nikolai Zhelev, the team’s chief area of investigation is ‘hypertrophy’  – a condition that causes the heart to stiffen, making it harder for blood to pump around the body, and which is the main cause of sudden death in young people.

Although hypertrophy is currently treatable, there is no known cure – and this is what researchers hope to find.

‘The chance to participate in a cutting-edge research project’

‘In a nutshell, my colleagues and I are the first who have been able to induce diseases in lab-grown miniature hearts,’ says Dimitar Trifonov, a student from Bulgaria who worked on the project for his Bachelor's degree in Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology at Abertay.

‘It is a new and exciting area of research with a great deal of potential.’

Dimitar, an Erasmus intern, was one of nine students involved in this project, all of whom are doing Bachelor’s, Master’s degrees or PhD research.

Dimitar Trifonov / Abertay University
Pioneer: Dimitar Trifonov has been actively involved with many aspects of the research on his Erasmus placement (Picture: Dimitar Trifonov / Abertay University)

They represent a real international community, coming not just from the UK and Bulgaria (where Professor Zhelev is also from), but also Mauritius, Italy and Ireland.

The students are expected to do far more than drawing up data charts; they take an active role in experiments, using state-of-the art equipment including high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and specialist analysis software.

‘I was handling 96-well plates containing the miniature hearts and observing the hearts under the microscope, photographing each and every one on a daily basis to monitor growth and whether or not they were becoming hypertrophic,’ Dimitar says.

Laura Cavicchi / Abertay University‘I took part in safety tests to evaluate any potential side effects of the drugs we tested, and I was responsible for testing the stability of some compounds – necessary because if a compound proves too instable, there is no point in doing experiments with it.

‘All in all I had the chance to participate in a cutting-edge research project.’

‘Establishing my career’     

Dimitar has now graduated and has a job as a research scientist in a biotech start-up in Bulgaria.

His work at Abertay, he says, was and still is invaluable in his career.

‘Prior to my stay at Abertay I had absolutely no experience in real-life academic research,’ he says.

‘I was able to gain new skills and expand my knowledge of drug discovery and development, as well as establish my career as a research scientist – and my findings also became the topic of my Bachelor's thesis.

‘I’m now working in research and development of food supplements and cosmetics, and again I have to evaluate compounds for their health-promoting potential.’

'Citizen of the world'

His experience of the UK, Dimitar says, was ‘much, much better than I could have expected’ – in fact, he admits, he’d never even considered studying in the UK until a friend said to him in passing: ‘Have you considered applying for an internship in the UK?’

It wasn’t just the scientific work that inspired him. Apart from observing the miniature hearts beat under the microscope, the part of my stay in the UK I enjoyed most was meeting people,' Dimitar says.

‘I got to know students from around the world, had the chance to experience a new culture (and cuisine) and improve my communication skills – and I even got used to the Scottish accent.

‘I can honestly say that I feel like a citizen of the world now.’

‘Something meaningful'

The latest news from the lab is extremely promising.

Professor Zhelev is particularly excited about one drug that has just completed phase-two clinical trials in cancer patients, and had very positive results.

‘I’m proud of my part in this project because I have accomplished much in terms of self-fulfilment as a member of the research group,’ says Dimitar.

‘But saying "I was part of it all" really does not point so much at personal pride,’ he adds.

‘It’s the self-acknowledgement that you have done something meaningful in your life.’