Researcher Verena Schwach of the University of Twente has won Young@Heart's crazy-idea grant. She will receive 50,000 euros for research into how to control the heartbeat of cultured heart tissue using ultrasound. This knowledge is highly relevant for the study of heart disease and research into new medicines.
It is a known fact that ultrasound can be used to stimulate the nervous system of the zebrafish and the much-studied roundworm or nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. If you expose these animals to low-energy ultrasound, a specific ion channel on the surface of the cells will allow more sodium, calcium and magnesium to pass through the cell membrane. And allowing these ions to pass through the cell membrane is the basis of a nerve impulse. A nerve impulse of this kind also causes contraction of the heart or, in the case of cultured heart cells, contraction of the heart cells.
Schwach will use the grant to study how to use ultrasound to control the heartbeat of cultured human heart tissue. If she does indeed succeed in controlling the contraction of the tissue in this way, scientists will have an additional, practicable method for using cultured heart tissue to study heart disease and research new medicines.
It is currently already possible to control the heartbeat of cultured heart tissue with electricity or light, but these methods have two significant disadvantages. The high energy of electrons or photons can damage the tissue and they are unable to penetrate as deeply into the tissue as ultrasound.
The crazy-idea grant is a research grant awarded by Young@Heart, a group of young academics whose aim is to encourage other talented young researchers in the field of cardiovascular research. The idea behind Young@Heart's grant is to give young academics the opportunity to test their innovative ideas, build up a network in the world of research and improve their chances of obtaining follow-up funding. This current round attracted 26 applications for the grant. The best five were allowed to pitch their ideas to a panel of experts and an audience jury. Two proposals, including Schwach's, were ultimately approved.
Verena Schwach works as a post-doc researcher in the department of Applied Stem Cell Technologies, headed by Robert Passier. She will carry out her research in close cooperation with researchers from the chair of Physical and Medical Acoustics, currently held by Michel Versluis.