Hearts by design

Stethoscope on electrocardiogram chart

Image: navee/Adobe Stock

Image: navee/Adobe Stock

There’s no doubt Dr Melissa Reichelt is passionate about her work with UQ’s School of Biomedical Sciences, but it’s innovation that really keeps her heart pumping.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the incredible job that the heart does throughout our lifespan,” she explains.

“From soon after we are conceived until the time we die, our heart pumps blood continuously, rain hail or shine.

“The heart is made up of a lot of different cell types, and some interventions that are good for one cell type will be bad for another.

Dr Reichelt's research group has recently been designing and making their own viruses to control the cells in the heart.

“I’ve identified a group of proteins that are essential for sensing stretch in the heart and, together with Professor Walter Thomas, we are looking to restore expression of these proteins in aged hearts using designer viruses," Dr Reichelt explains.

“We’re currently in the process of examining how cardiac function changes in aged mice using techniques that are similar to those used in the clinical setting. Thanks to the Australian Research Council, which is supporting this project, our next step will be using our designer viruses to reverse the stiffening of the heart that happens as we get older.

“To me, it’s amazing that we can control how a cell works by selecting an appropriate virus shell and designing a sequence package within this that specifies which cell it will target and what proteins to make.”

Designer viruses give experts the precision to target only the cells that will benefit from a therapy, a technique Dr Reichelt believes we have only scratched the surface of.

Dr Reichelt’s journey into research started with an investigation into retinal vasculature development and disease, as part of her undergraduate and honours projects.

“The lab next door was doing isolated heart work and it seemed so amazing to me that you could take the heart out of a mouse and keep it going for hours using a buffer with just 9 salts/sugars,” Dr Reichelt recalls.

“And, the rig itself seemed so cool – wires and water-filled tubing going everywhere.

“It’s really hard to properly instrument a mouse heart for this technique, so there’s a real feeling of accomplishment when you have been trained to the point where you can get reliable data,” Dr Reichelt says proudly.

It was that moment, Dr Reichelt knew she loved cardiovascular research.

“I have had a longstanding interest in the different ways the heart works throughout the lifespan.

“I’ve investigated the impact of ageing on cardiac cell signalling, and how this impacts the deterioration in the function of the heart, and how it responds to stressors.

“I’ve also looked at how cardiac signalling and function is impacted by the diseases that are known to worsen cardiac function – such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and how cardiac function is improved by exercise.”

Dr Reichelt insists that the best thing we can do to keep our heart healthy is to keep moving.

“Our cardiovascular system needs exercise to stay healthy,” she explains.

“Current Australian government guidelines recommend doing exercise 30 to 45 minutes a day, five days a week, to get your heart rate up and you puffing, but any movement is better than none.

“Exercise is also really good for stress relief, and outdoor exercise can be especially pleasant.

“Eating well is also important, as is regularly getting checked by your doctor for cardiovascular risk factors, such as altered blood lipids, increased blood pressure and diabetes.”

Melissa Reichelt
Cardiovascular disease

Image: freshidea/Adobe Stock

Image: freshidea/Adobe Stock

Exercise and healthy eating for cardiovascular health

Dr Reichelt insists that the best thing we can do to keep our heart healthy is to keep moving. Image: SUPREEYA-ANON/Adobe Stock

Dr Reichelt insists that the best thing we can do to keep our heart healthy is to keep moving. Image: SUPREEYA-ANON/Adobe Stock

This story is featured in the Summer 2021 edition of UQmedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.