The first two recipitants of The Marcus Blackmore Fellowship are Dr. Carmine Gentile and Dr. Stacy Robertson.
Dr. Carmine Gentile is joining the Heart Research Institute all the way from Pisa in Italy.
Carmine will be examining the development of the heart and blood vessels in babies and young children, and by doing so, working towards a therapy that enhances recovery after heart attacks.
Carmine started his science career far from a research laboratory. “I was actually working as a pharmacist for a short time in Spain, in the Canary Islands. That was quite an experience,” says Carmine. “That helped me a lot because I had to deal with patients, which is not something that we routinely do in research.”
Following his time in the Canary Islands, Carmine moved to Charleston, USA to work towards a PhD at the Medical University of South Carolina. During his PhD, Carmine found that an enzyme called eNOS is a critical factor for the development of a healthy heart and circulatory system, even prior to birth: “When [developing blood vessel cells] start making the building blocks for your arteries and veins, they start expressing eNOS. These cells divide because they express eNOS and since more and more cells are required to build proper blood vessels, this is a fundamental mechanism during development.”
This means that when eNOS is missing or dysfunctional during development, it can lead to problems with the heart and blood vessels, which can be fatal. “It’s like if you try to build a house, but you don’t have enough bricks, your house is going to fall down,” says Carmine. “Because you have a deformation of the developing blood vessel cells, immature blood vessels are produced … and you don’t have the proper structures to nourish all of the organs in your body.”
While working at The Heart Research Institute, Carmine plans to expand on the work done during his PhD; he wants to apply his understanding of the development of blood vessel cells to aid recovery from heart attacks. The goal is to find the best way to coax stem cells – immature cells that can develop into almost any human cell found in the body – into becoming heart cells, which will then be used to repair the damage caused by a heart attack.
Carmine is a strong advocate of translational research – research that brings science from the lab bench to the clinic. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do: to have my own project, to be able to carry on my research, and to be able to actually show that my research has a clinical application. I’m thankful for the Marcus Blackmore Fellowship for giving me this opportunity.” says Carmine.
The Marcus Blackmore Fellows are encouraged to choose their own independent area of research, which is developed under the mentorship of senior scientists from the Heart Research Institute. The Fellowships will offer these two talented scientists the opportunity to kick-start their career by running their own research project at The Heart Research Institute – a stepping stone to developing an independent research group.
Dr. Stacy Robertson is a promising young researcher.
Born in Aberdeen and trained in Glasgow, this talented Scottish scientist joins The Heart Research Institute to investigate whether blood-pressure regulating hormones might also contribute to heart disease.
Considerable research suggests that the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) regulates blood pressure and fluid balance via actions on the brain, kidney, and blood vessels – it’s the bodily system that makes you thirsty after a day in the hot sun, for instance. But in the case of heart disease, the RAAS hormone aldosterone might be harmful instead of helpful: “If you block the action of aldosterone, you may block atherosclerosis – there are some really exciting studies that have shown this lately,” says Stacy. “Unexpectedly, it’s been shown that aldosterone acts on cells in the artery wall and causes gene changes in these cells. So there’s probably a new function for aldosterone: a vascular cell function.”
Dr. Robertson suspects that aldosterone has its damaging effect via microRNAs: small strips of genetic material that interfere with normal gene expression. MicroRNA acts as a throttle on the cell’s production of proteins, regulating how much is produced. Abnormal expression of microRNAs can contribute to the development and progression of many diseases. Dr. Stacy Robertson has extensive experience working with aldosterone and microRNAs, with a PhD from the University of Glasgow studying the role of microRNAs in high blood pressure (hypertension). She’s got a number of impressive achievements to her name, including winning a Young Investigator Award from the International Aldosterone Conference in 2010, and several conference poster prizes.
“The premise of this position was to have a project in mind, and allow younger scientists a bit of freedom and independence early on,” says Stacy. As for the HRI, she says: “I really like the focused nature of the research; it is one of HRI’s greatest strengths, with all the scientists and other staff working towards a common goal.”