Robert Gourdie

Robert Gourdie, PhD

Professor, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund Eminent Scholar in Heart Regenerative Medicine Research, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

Director, Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine Research, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

Professor, Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences

Professor of Emergency Medicine, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine

Director of Emergency Medicine Research, Carilion Clinic

Robert Gourdie, PhD, is the director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute’s Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine Research, where his research focuses on the basic building blocks of the cardiovascular conduction system and techniques to help heal them.

In previous research, Gourdie identified the embryonic developmental processes that give rise to the heart’s electrical conduction systems. Now his research is pointing to the fact that, once developed, that system is much more complex than anyone thought even just a few years ago.

Besides the direct wiring between myocytes – cardiovascular muscle cells – called gap junctions, recent research has suggested the presence of a redundant system that acts more like a capacitor than direct conductor. That is, not only can electrical impulses move through physical conduits, but they can also be spread across open spaces, much like a neuron firing across a synapse. By looking at basic interactions between proteins, how little molecular machines are assembled, and how all of it works together to provide the mechanism for this capacity, Gourdie looks to understand the different layers contributing to cardiac functions.

And how to heal them.

“Obviously, it’s important that electricity flows through cardiac muscle,” Gourdie said. “Otherwise, you’re dead.”

While at the Medical University of South Carolina, Gourdie and colleagues discovered a peptide that disrupted the interaction between two proteins central to gap junction function – connexin 43, a subunit of the channels wiring cells together, and ZO-1, thought to be the scaffolding providing the framework for the channels. When applied to a single-layered cell culture, the peptide seemed to promote the regrowth of inflicted damage. Sure enough, when applied to actual wounds, there was less inflammation and less scar tissue associated with the healing process.

The discovery of that peptide led to a spinoff company trying to commercialize the skin-wound healing technology. Meanwhile, Gourdie is taking the information and reapplying it in a laboratory setting. His current research is looking into whether this novel peptide has a positive effect on the healing of heart muscle after trauma, while also developing and characterizing new peptides in search of the next big discovery. To help fund Gourdie’s research, in 2014 the Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corporation named him a recipient of the prestigious Catalyst grant. The grant, designed to encourage public and private collaboration, will also support Phase 3 clinical trials of the skin-wound healing treatment.

“My laboratory has both a basic thrust in molecular cell biology and a practical one in regenerative medicine,” said Gourdie. “And the two play off each other.”

In addition to his position as director of the institute’s Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine Research, Gourdie’s primary faculty appointment is in biomedical engineering, along with a secondary appointment in veterinary medicine. He is also a professor and the Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund Eminent Scholar in Heart Regenerative Medicine Research at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, a professor of emergency medicine at the Virginia Tech School of Medicine, and director of the Carilion Clinic Emergency Medicine Research Program.

Gourdie studied cellular and molecular biology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand before earning his doctorate in biophysics at the University of Canterbury, also in New Zealand. After a postdoctoral posting and fellowship in Great Britain, most of his career to date was spent at the Medical University of South Carolina, where he was co-director of the Cardiovascular Developmental Biology Center and chair of the Intellectual Property Committee. Gourdie’s extensive list of honors includes the National Science Foundation Early Career Scholar Award, a spot on the National Institutes of Health’s Board of Scientific Councilors, and the Charleston Business Journal Innovator of 2006.