VCU receives NIH award to study mutation in heart disease

Biomedical Engineering assistant professor Seth Weinberg, Ph.D.
Seth H. Weinberg, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Seth H. Weinberg, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is using computational modeling to investigate a genetic mutation that can lead to sudden cardiac death.

Weinberg is collaborating with Steven Poelzing, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI), on a project that has received a four-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

Weinberg’s Computational Physiology Lab, which focuses on cardiac electrophysiology and mechanobiology, is developing and testing models while Poelzing is directing experiments to gain a deeper understanding of a mutation that causes one inherited type of Long QT syndrome (LQTS). This disorder can cause sudden arrhythmias — problems with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat.

“We know that some people will have those mutations but not have any symptoms of the disease,” Weinberg said. Such patients can lead healthy lives up until a certain point, he said, but some may suddenly experience a dangerous arrhythmia. “In many of those cases,” he said, “that can be lethal.”

The investigators are studying the role of sodium ion channels in cardiac tissue. For patients with this particular genetic mutation, the flow of sodium ions through ion channels in the heart cells is not normal and can trigger arrhythmias.

“Sodium is one of the key molecules that is regulated in cardiac cells,” Weinberg said. In a healthy heart, regulation of the channel is highly controlled. But for patients with LQTS and other heart diseases, “that channel is defective. The grant is all about understanding how that regulation goes wrong in certain heart diseases.”

Other collaborators include VTCRI professor Robert Gourdie, Ph.D.

Weinberg said, “We’re trying to understand why some patients are completely asymptomatic until they suddenly have a potentially lethal arrhythmia, while other patients show symptoms in childhood. If we can understand what’s different between those two cases, then we can try to design therapies that mimic the asymptomatic case.”

“Seth’s latest project is cutting-edge research that has a strong potential to improve how cardiovascular disease is treated,” said Henry J. Donahue, Ph.D., College of Engineering Foundation Professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Weinberg currently has two other research projects supported by major, prestigious NIH grants. Christopher Lemmon, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is co-principal investigator on both projects. Using a computational-experimental methodology, they are studying how mechanical interactions between cells can affect cell behavior.