From studying the physics of a heart­beat to designing new car­diac dis­ease detec­tion methods, these five researchers have the heart on the brain.

1. Drop a beat

To Thomas Web­ster, pro­fessor and chair of the Depart­ment of Chem­ical Engi­neering, all heart attacks are cre­ated equal. While clin­i­cians don’t always treat heart attacks with large-​​scale inter­ven­tions such as implantable devices, all heart attacks do leave the muscle depleted. That’s why Web­ster is working to create an injectable, con­duc­tive hydrogel that mimics heart cell activity and is much less inva­sive than any kind of implant. His team has already opti­mized a gel that can adhere to a pop­u­la­tion of beating car­diac cells in a petri dish and then begin expanding and con­tracting in time with the living cells.

2. Diag­nosing death

Early in his career, pro­fessor of phar­ma­ceu­tical sci­ences Ban-​​An Khaw devel­oped a method for detecting car­diac cell damage with extremely high sen­si­tivity. When a heart cell gets hurt, the outer mem­brane rup­tures, exposing the con­trac­tile units of the cells below. Using imaging mol­e­cules tagged with anti­bodies that selec­tively adhere to that con­trac­tile machinery, Khaw man­aged to expose the exact loca­tion of cell death. He’s now using the same approach, to detect tumors ear­lier than cur­rent methods allow.

3. Safe har­bors for stormy veins

If the heart muscle is a tree, then assis­tant pro­fessor of chem­ical engi­neering Eno Ebong is inter­ested in its vas­cular roots. In par­tic­ular, she’s inves­ti­gating how blood vessel plaque growth—a pre­cursor to heart attack—can be con­trolled by rein­forcing the pro­tec­tive sugar coat, called the gly­co­calyx, that lines our blood ves­sels. This struc­ture gives our fairly fragile veins and arteries the resilience they need to with­stand the rau­cous fluid envi­ron­ment coursing through them, espe­cially at the branch points where plaques are most prevalent.

4. Blood simple

Asso­ciate pro­fessor of chem­ical engi­neering Shashi Murthy makes tiny devices. These minia­ture machines are able to ana­lyze micro­scopic vol­umes of liquid and seek out what­ever rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion the user is inter­ested in. In one case, Murthy devel­oped a device that can mon­itor car­dio­vas­cular health by using just a single drop of blood. The diag­nostic tool has already been ini­tially val­i­dated in patients with pul­monary arte­rial hyper­ten­sion and is now under­going fur­ther clin­ical validation.

5. Heart­beat physics

According to Alain Karma, Arts and Sci­ences Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Physics, the heart is a com­plex elec­trical cir­cuit. He’s studying how that circuit’s elec­trical signal is dis­rupted in indi­vid­uals with a par­tic­ular type of gene muta­tion. The so-​​called “Long QT gene” is asso­ci­ated with increased risk for sudden car­diac arrest, so Karma’s work could inform new life-​​saving inter­ven­tions. How’s that for a good Valentine’s Day present?