Steven Poelzing and Spencer Lovegrove together in a laboratory

Spencer Lovegrove of Roanoke, Virginia, a junior majoring in biological sciences in the College of Science (seated) and his mentor Steven Poelzing, an associate professor at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, conduct cardiac arrest research in a laboratory at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

Virginia Tech undergraduate studies investigates matters close to the heart

Hunkered over a laboratory bench isn’t high on the list of ways to spend a summer vacation for most people. But then again, the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute isn’t filled with just most people.

This summer, the institute is adding three of Virginia Tech’s brightest undergraduates to its ranks. Supported by the Fralin Life Science Institute and the Office of Undergraduate Research at Virginia Tech, these students will engage in full-time research and learn the tools of the scientific trade for 10 weeks. One of these students, Spencer Lovegrove, will study in the laboratory of Steven Poelzing, where he’ll look for health variables that might contribute to sudden cardiac death.

Sudden cardiac death holds a special interest for Lovegrove; his sister died of it when she was just 18. Now a junior majoring in biological sciences, Lovegrove sought out Poelzing for the project because he was intrigued by Poelzing’s cardiac research program.

“We want to know why people with inflammation, either caused by diabetes, flu, or infection, are at increased risk for sudden cardiac death,” said Poelzing, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “One of our working hypotheses is that during inflammation, there is a lot of water deposited into the tissue, one of those tissues being the heart.”

The body’s inflammatory response to infection, as well as some drugs that are prescribed to combat that response, leads to increased water in the heart tissue, Poelzing said. As a result, the person is at an increased risk for arrhythmia, or a nonstandard heart beat rhythm that precipitates sudden cardiac death.

For his summer project, Lovegrove will examine the effect that flu infection has on increased water in the heart. He will examine the function of connexin-43, a protein that is responsible for keeping heart cells electrically hooked up to each other. Using optical technology to monitor the electrical activity and water deposition in the hearts of mice, Lovegrove will compare his results with those previously collected by Poelzing’s graduate students. Depending on what is found, the team will then move forward to investigate how inflammation modifies the relationship between connexin-43 and edema.

After the project is completed, Lovegrove will present his findings at the Virginia Tech Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium on July 31, along with almost 100 other budding scientists participating in summer research at Virginia Tech.