Nearly one million heart attacks occur each year in the United States. When a heart fails to beat during a heart attack, usually due to a lack of oxygen, the cells in the area of the attack die. Extra stress in other areas of the heart, caused by the failed region, can lead to heart failure or the widespread death of heart cells.
In the United States, 200,000 people suffer total heart failure each year, and there is no clinical cure. The sole permanent solution, as of now, is a heart transplant, which is severely limited by donor supply. A substantial number of individuals die each year waiting for a heart to become available.
At Jonathan T. Butcher’s lab, which specializes in tissue engineering strategies for heart and valve diseases, undergraduate researcher Katherine G. Phillips ’17 works with fellow lab members to find an answer.
Working Toward a Clinical Therapy to Replace Heart Transplants
Once a week Phillips—a Cornell biomedical engineering student—removes the hearts from young embryos of chicken eggs. “We then put them through a series of chemical steps that work to make the tissue, or matrix, less likely to evoke an immune response. Every day I also feed stem cells I’ve been growing for the past few months. When they need to be encouraged to become heart cells, I add various elements to their food that turns on cardiac stimulating pathways.”
This matrix, similar to an enriched vitamin water, is where stem cells mature into heart cells. It is also, Phillips stresses, what sets the Butcher lab apart from other research communities’ strategy.
“Currently, there are numerous approaches to adding new stem cells to an area of cell death right after a heart attack so that new cells can beat with rest of heart. But when these cells are transferred to the heart, they often die and if they do survive, lead to arrhythmia,” says Phillips.
At the Butcher lab, letting cells grow in the matrix composed of decellularized embryonic chick tissue could lead to greater incorporation when the cells are placed into heart tissue.
“Even before my freshman year, I remember learning that researchers could regenerate entire parts of livers from just a few cells. I liked how practical the engineering approach was to medicine, and the potential is endless.”
Butcher’s lab uses pluripotent cells from the Todd R. Evans lab, Weill Cornell Medicine, where Phillips has worked due to her experience at the Butcher lab. Through the same technology that won the Nobel Prize four years ago, the Evans lab takes cells from human skin and adds a few genes so that they become stem cells and sends them to the Butcher lab to be placed in their matrix.
The work at the Butcher lab is complex, but rewarding, says Phillips, “One of the coolest moments was when I saw cardiac cells beating together in a culture. I realized that I had grown this living thing and that it could one day potentially be used to help millions of people.”
An Undergraduate’s Foresight
Phillips has been fascinated with the heart since she watched an open-heart surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center the summer after her freshman year at Cornell.
“I knew that as a whole I want to do cardiac surgery after school. I would love to be on the surgeon’s side of implanting a solution for heart failure in 10 years but with an approach that incorporates how engineering looks at surgery and tissue development,” says Phillips.
Phillips, who chose Cornell for its impressive engineering departments, wanted to learn how to approach medical practice with a practical, problem solving twist. “Even before my freshman year, I remember learning that researchers could regenerate entire parts of livers from just a few cells. I liked how practical the engineering approach was to medicine, and the potential is endless. All of my professors are also pioneers in their respective fields,” exclaims Phillips.
A Passion for Engineering, a Passion for Medicine
Working at the Butcher lab has provided Phillips with the hands-on opportunity to combine biological engineering with medicine. It also helped Phillips pursue her own passions without damaging her heavy course load.
As an engineering and pre-med student, Phillips was concerned about how heavy her course load would be. “I was worried about the curriculum but loved the way engineers approach biology, and I continued to take some of the pre-med classes. When I found out about Mount Sinai’s FlexMed program, which allows those who have unusual majors to apply to medical school early and not take the MCAT, I emphasized in my application how if I had the assurance of medical school, I could focus on my research at the Butcher Lab,” says Phillips.
Phillips’ unique major and specific career goals helped her to be admitted into the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai when she was a junior.
Phillips, alongside her work at the Butcher lab and her passion for biological engineering and medicine, is an avid art lover who has found time to take painting classes at Cornell.