UM researcher examines molecular causes of heart disease – The Oxford Eagle


OXFORD, Mississippi — Nikki Reinemann, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Mississippi, is using a three-year grant from the American Heart Association to dig deeper into the underlying causes of heart disease.

Reinemann hopes her work can help doctors find ways to prevent and treat heart disease, the number one cause of death in the country, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More specifically, she studies the molecular basis of muscle contraction and how these proteins affect the heart.

“We understand how an individual molecule works,” Reinemann said. “We understand how a muscle works. What I’m trying to figure out is how these individual molecules work together to achieve this muscle function.

Funding from the American Heart Association

To continue this work, Reinemann received an Early Career Development Award from the American Heart Association. The grant is designed to advance the research skills of non-tenured faculty who have been in academia for less than five years.

It is a competitive field, with only 12% of applications for research projects accepted.

Reinemann will receive $231,000 over the three-year period to help fund the necessary materials, as well as research assistance for two undergraduate students and one graduate student from UM’s engineering departments.

As a grant requirement, she assembled a mentorship team to provide guidance on project direction, management, and future grant proposals. Nathan Hammer, a chemistry teacher at Ole Miss, is her main mentor. This is especially fitting, as Hammer served as Reinemann’s research advisor when she was an undergraduate student in chemical engineering and chemistry.

“Since I’m an established researcher in a related and collaborative field, my role will be to give her advice based on my experience,” Hammer said. “Guidance will be in many areas, including in the research itself, but also in one’s own mentoring of students, the integration of teaching and research, grant writing and the preparation and submission of manuscripts.

“I hope she can benefit from my previous successes and failures and I’m happy to help her in any way I can.”

Reinemann studies the causes of thickening of the heart wall, called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or HCM. The American Heart Association estimates that one in 500 people have HCM, but a large percentage of them go undiagnosed.

This condition can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, and even death in young adults.

It’s a personal challenge for Reinemann, as her father, George Reinemann, died of a heart attack in his 50s. A mechanical and quality engineer, he has worked for BorgWarner in Water Valley and Winchester in Oxford during his career spanning more than 30 years.

“My love for understanding how the world works was inspired by him,” Reinemann said. “He died of a heart attack during my senior year of undergraduate studies at Ole Miss and while I was researching potential graduate schools.

“I knew I wanted to combine my love of engineering and research to better understand how disease manifests at the molecular level, but this particular event motivated me to pursue research in the field of heart disease.”

A laser focus on a healthy heart

It focuses on the role of myosins, motor proteins present in muscle cells, in achieving muscle contraction. This should allow scientists to discern where errors may occur and cause heart disease.

“My lab is interested in understanding how the motor protein called myosin, which is found in muscles like the heart, works together at the molecular level to cause muscle contraction,” she said. “Furthermore, by introducing myosins with known pathological mutations, such as those in HCM, we can then better determine how muscle contraction is impaired by monitoring changes in how the myosins work together as a team.”

She uses a sensitive instrument called an optical trap or tweezers to examine the myosins. The instrument has a laser which is introduced into a microscope and the laser beam becomes highly focused.

The focused laser beam can then act like tweezers, with the ability to grab or “trap” microscopic objects and move them around, much like a tractor beam in “Star Wars.”

UM is one of the few institutions in the region to have this specialized instrument.

The grant is for three years, but Reinemann anticipates that her study will open the door to many interesting mechanistic questions that will extend beyond the grant period and remain a major focus of her research lab.

“A year from now, we hope to have a solid foundation in our experimental approaches and have a better understanding of how myosin mutations of a single amino acid lead to changes in the teamwork of proteins that ultimately propagate. until muscle contraction,” she said.

Reinemann received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and chemistry from Ole Miss in 2013 and her doctorate in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Vanderbilt University in 2018.

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