Getting to the heart of heart disease

When asked the traditional back-to-school question about how he spent his summer, Eric Gren is one of the few students who can say he was helping prevent America’s number one killer: heart disease. A senior chemistry and biology major, Gren accompanied Veneracion Cabana, professor of biology, to spend the summer in a laboratory at the University of Chicago where Cabana worked before coming to Union College and continues to conduct research. Each year Cabana selects a few Union students to assist with her genetic research and learn hands-on about DNA isolation. “I happened to mention my interest in biomedical research to Dr. Cabana,” Gren said. “She’s very well respected in the field of pathology, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get real world experience working under her in a cutting-edge lab.”

Cabana and students like Gren are establishing a link between heart disease and genes that cause inflammation. Inflammation by itself is a normal bodily reaction; anytime the body is fighting a foreign substance in the blood such as an infection, the endothelial cells lining the arteries and veins swell up as macrophages, white blood cells in the tissue, fight infection by engulfing and digesting foreign bodies within the muscle tissue.

However, some people have higher-than-normal levels of inflammation. This means that the macrophages, or as Cabana calls them, "the body's soldier cells," are too easily triggered and could react to harmless substances in the blood. In the case of heart disease, if someone has high cholesterol, and therefore many fat molecules in their blood, overactive macrophages might treat the fat molecules as if they were an infection.

When this happens, the macrophages try to clean up the fat, oxidizing it and burying it, causing surrounding tissue to become inflamed. As more fat comes through the vessel, the inflammation can cause a blockage in the artery or vein. “The more easily triggered the macrophages, the higher your inflammatory monitors,” Cabana said, “and the worse your prognosis for heart disease.”

To isolate these genes, Cabana and student researchers are crossbreeding mice in the lab, genotyping the offspring, and documenting the affects of specific genes on the mouse tissue samples. They are able to isolate and document genetic differences in the mice by cutting out a tiny piece of the liver, replicating the DNA, then visualized through agarose gel electrophoresis, a process that separates molecules by size. 

Assisting several researchers, Gren was able to experience the process of lab work during his summer in Chicago. “In the morning, when I got to the lab, we poured agarose gels to start setting up. Then we selected the mouse tissue samples from the freezer and started the tests. The afternoons were spent analyzing our results and putting together data spreadsheets,” Gren said. He also worked with different pigments, practiced fast-phase liquid chromatography (which separates the molecules that carry cholesterol and triglycerides) and measured the quantity of DNA molecules by viewing the gel slabs under fluorescent light.

Not only was Gren able to gain experience with advanced technology, but he also had the chance to be part of an important research team and to have his name mentioned as a researcher in an article published in a major periodical. Each week, he took part in presenting and defending the results to a panel of professional researchers. “This forced me to be sure I understood the deeper concepts behind what we were doing,” Gren said.

One of the best aspects of the summer research for Gren was that it helped him develop independent thinking and confidence in his lab work. Beyond his personal growth, Gren was excited to participate in research with global consequences. These advances in understanding the genetics of disease could potentially lead to pharmaceutical innovations, creating heart disease medicines that can isolate genes that increase inflammation and turn them off or on.

Gren’s plans for the future include earning a graduate degree in biology, studying how animal toxins work and searching for ways to apply their functions to treating disease. His work with Cabana this summer has given him a great start. “Education at Union is a personal thing,” Gren said. “Our professors show genuine interest not only in our academic success but also in our preparation for the real world. Dr. Cabana exemplified this attitude, always encouraging me to think about how what we were doing related to the bigger picture.”