Binghamton University researcher receives American Heart Association funding

Thanks to funding from the American Heart Association, one Southern Tier student is studying the heart in a unique way.

Natalie Weiss, a graduate student at Binghamton University, received a two-year American Heart Association grant for her research. She works in a lab focused on engineering cardiovascular tissues. Scientists create heart muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, from induced pluripotent stem cells, which were originally skin cells that were given by a donor and reverted back into a stem cell state so they are capable of becoming any kind of cell. Once these cells are made into heart muscle cells, the lab can create simplified models of the heart.

“This process essentially gives us cells on demand,” Weiss said. With these heart models, Weiss is primarily studying how the protein collagen affects how efficiently the heart beats and impacts cardiac fibrosis, or the stiffening of the heart muscles. That stiffening makes it harder for the heart to beat.

“Collagen acts like a band-aid when the heart is failing. It helps protect the heart right after it gets injured, but too much collagen disrupts the extracellular matrix, or the ‘scaffolding’ protecting the heart’s cell structure,” Weiss said. “It makes the heart stiffer. Picture squeezing a stress ball versus squeezing a tennis ball.” Scientists see increased levels of extracellular matrix in diseased hearts. That stiffness makes beating more difficult. Weiss’s research could eventually help determine if degrading collagen deposits in the heart could help it beat more easily.

In the lab, Weiss often tries new ideas or slight adjustments to her research. She said the American Heart Association grant feels like confirmation that her research is a good idea, and “if it’s not going perfectly, there has got to be a way to make it work.”

Dr. Tracy Hookway, assistant professor at Binghamton University and Weiss’s supervisor in the lab, said grant funding allows Weiss to try different things and go down paths that may be unexpected. “Science is not linear,” she said.

Dr. Hookway also received an American Heart Association grant early in her career, and was mentored by an American Heart Association funded researcher. That mentorship helped lead her to her current career at Binghamton University.

Weiss is already a mentor in her lab. She takes undergraduate students under her wing and is already planning an academic career as a professor with her own research lab. She says Dr. Hookway inspires and encourages her.

Franklin Fry, left, executive director of the American Heart Association in Greater Sracuse, interviews Dr. Tracy Hookway, middle, and Natalie Weiss, right, about their research at Binghamton University

“In this lab, my contributions are listened to and valued,” Weiss said. “I’ve had great professors and not so great professors. Wanting to be a great one and knowing what a difference that can make to students is a big motivator for me.”

At a recent Southern Tier Heart Walk event, both Weiss and Dr. Hookway thanked walkers for their fundraising efforts and stressed the importance of the American Heart Association’s mission to be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives.

“Whether it’s walking or looking at cells, we’re all after the same mission,” Dr. Hookway said.