November 15, 2012

Peer Review: Sam Olyha Studies Stem Cells to Create Heart Cells

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Cardiovascular problems, such as heart attacks, are some of the leading causes of death in the United States. But a potential way to deal with these life-threatening problems may lie in the ability to regrow damaged cardiac cells from other existent cells, and then transplant them back into the heart. That’s the type of potential solutions to cardiovascular problems that that drove Sam Olyha ’14 to research the capabilities of maturing embryonic stem cells derived from the heart cells of mice under the Harvard Stem Cell Institute summer internship program.

In her lab, Olyha initially found that the more a heart cell matured, the more a certain gene, Asb2β, was expressed. Using these results, she infected embryonic stem cells with a virus containing a segment of the desired gene.

“We’re taking heart cells and making them into mature cells. If someone has a heart attack and part of their heart tissue dies, when you repair it you need mature cells to do that, not immature cells,” explained Olyha.

Through cloning, PCR, and amplification techniques, Olyha attempted over-expressing the Asb2β gene in order to promote cell maturation.

“If you take cells from you, and then patch you up with your own cells, then you don’t have compatibility problems anymore – you’re able to fix your heart with your own heart transplant,” Olyha explained.

While working at Harvard Olyha, not only learned laboratory techniques, but also had the opportunity to meet people from a variety of cultures, including Egypt, the Netherlands, and Lebanon. Her colleagues took different approaches in tackling the same problem.  They all shared their research with each other.

“In my lab, everyone got along really well – they were so welcoming, and they never had a mentee before. Even my PI never had an undergraduate student before, so he was enthusiastic about mentoring and giving advice,” remembered Olyha.

Before working in the cardiovascular research center, Olyha had focused more on the field of neurobiology and her turtle conservation research. Though originally “intimidated” because her cardiology background was lacking, she eventually came to grow “really passionate” about her new research.

Olyha said that her summer experience has helped shape her future, and she is now planning on taking more stem cell and cardiology classes during the school year. And even more into the future, her discovered passion has led her to pursue research past her undergraduate schooling. Though she may not be working with the same lab next year, she still wants to pursue stem cell research.

“I hope that somewhere in the future, it [our research] will have actual applications to people with cardiovascular problems, such as heart attacks,” said Olyha.

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Original Author: Camille Wang