Carnegie Mellon University professor Adam Feinberg has received a grant from the Human Frontier Science Program to support research on cellular synchronization in the heart, the failure of which can lead to irregular heartbeat, or worse, sudden cardiac arrest. The three-year, $750,000 award will be split with collaborator Peter van der Meer, a cardiology professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

“We’re trying to understand the way heart muscle cells mechanically connect and how that affects them becoming electrically synchronized,” said Feinberg, who holds joint appointments in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Carnegie Mellon. “How heart muscle cells interact with each other underlies everything they do, because if they’re not connected, they can’t work together to contract and pump blood.”

Feinberg’s research group has developed tiny mechanical biosensors — about the diameter of a human hair in length — that can be integrated in bio-engineered heart tissue to measure the mechanical interactions between cells. When the cells pull on each other as the tissue forms, they also pull on the sensors, causing them to stretch. How much the sensors stretch says a lot about how the cells synchronize.

“You can think of these sensors as little rulers,” Feinberg said. The ‘little rulers’ are fluorescent, so they can be observed using a fluorescent microscope. This allows Feinberg to see how much they stretch, and thus how the cells physically interact.

Working with their collaborator in the Netherlands, Feinberg’s group can build heart tissue where the genes that enable cells to attach to each other have been removed. By measuring the mechanical forces between the cells in each sample, Feinberg’s group can observe the link between certain genes and the cells’ ability to connect and communicate. This research could help better understand how these genes increase the risk of heart disease.

“Should you or should you not be concerned about some of the mutations in your genes?” Feinberg asked. “That is a growing question, especially as individual genome sequencing becomes more common. As we learn how having this adhesion problem between cells impacts function, it may provide a therapeutic target for those with a genetic predisposition.”

Receiving financial support to build and study heart tissue using advanced biological and engineering tools is just one of the reasons Feinberg praises the Human Frontier Science Program’s push for international collaboration.

“Science on an international level is important for everyone,” Feinberg said. “It brings the whole world together, builds interesting collaborations and cultural exchanges, and trains future generations of scientists that have a multidisciplinary and global perspective. It’s just good all around.”