Beating to a different flow

Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute postdoctoral associate earns an international award to help uncover the heart’s hidden electrical network.

Rengasayee “Sai” Veeraraghavan

Rengasayee “Sai” Veeraraghavan, PhD

Rengasayee “Sai” Veeraraghavan, a postdoctoral associate at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, was recently awarded a Heart Rhythm Society Research Fellowship. The fellowship is given to a half-dozen emerging scientists each year chosen from an international pool of applicants. Besides the honor that comes with the recognition, the award includes $50,000 to support research in cardiac electrophysiology – the heart’s electrical network.

Veeraraghavan received the Mark Josephson and Hein Wellens Clinical Research Award at the Heart Rhythm Society’s annual meeting, held in Denver, Colorado.

“It’s a thrill,” said Veeraraghavan, who joined the VTC Research Institute last fall from the University of Utah. “It’s a nice validation of the science.”

Veeraraghavan studies how electric signals are transmitted between cells in the human heart. For years, it was thought that the only method of signal propagation was through direct connections between groups of cells called gap junctions. Through his work as a doctoral candidate, however, Veeraraghavan helped show that a secondary, indirect system is also involved. This system sends electric signals across the space between heart cells through an ephapse - or “false synapse” – by manipulating nearby ion channels.

At the University of Utah, Veeraraghavan earned his doctorate in the laboratory of Steven Poelzing, now an associate professor at the VTC Research Institute. After moving to Roanoke, however, Veeraraghavan joined the laboratory of one of Poelzing’s close collaborators, Robert Gourdie, professor at the VTC Research Institute and director of the institute’s Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine Research. Supported by the fellowship, Veeraraghavan’s research will focus on revealing the biomolecular structures and mechanisms that underlie these so-called false synapses.

“The most promising lead toward understanding how this system functions is a specialized domain right next to the gap junctions called the perinexus, which has all of the right characteristics,” said Veeraraghavan. “We’re trying to figure out which proteins or ion channels are involved, how they are assembled, and how they work as an ephapse.”

If successful, Veeraraghavan will help redefine science’s understanding of how electrical impulses spread through a beating heart. Advancements in this line of research could help explain contradictory experimental results and open up new avenues for cardiac therapy.

“I’m very proud of Sai,” said Gourdie. “The Heart Rhythm Society Research Fellowship is a prestigious award and usually only given to clinician scientists. Sai is a credit to my lab and to his former graduate student mentor, Steve Poelzing.”

Written by Ken Kingery

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May 15, 2013
Roanoke