Zebrafish heart is seen with prominent coronary vessels marked by transgenic fluorescent reporters. (Image/Ching-Ling (Ellen) Lien)

Ching-Ling (Ellen) Lien, PhD, assistant professor of surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and an investigator at The Saban Research Institute of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, has been awarded nearly $1.7 million, over a four year period, from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health to study the molecular and cellular mechanisms of the heart’s circulatory system. The research will lead to a better understanding of development and heart regeneration after injury.

Heart disease is among the leading causes of death for both adults and children. A heart attack (or myocardial infarction) occurs when the heart is deprived of oxygen due to blockage of a coronary artery. Coronary arteries supply the heart muscle with oxygenated blood. Yet, the mechanisms that regulate coronary vascularization of the myocardium (the middle and thickest muscle layer of the heart wall) remain unknown.

Using zebrafish as a model system to study developmental and regenerative processes of the heart, Lien’s goal is to determine the molecular and cellular mechanisms of myocardial vascularization during heart development. Zebrafish have become an important vertebrate model for cardiovascular research not only because of their natural ability to regenerate, but also because their transparency allows researchers to observe the internal processes like blood vessel development.

“Our long-term goal is to use the mechanisms of zebrafish heart regeneration as a blueprint to design potential therapeutic approaches to enhance heart repair in humans,” said Lien, principal investigator of the study.

The investigators expect that their research can lead to findings that will shed light on potential developmental causes of coronary heart disease and may enhance neovascularization, or new blood vessel formation in abnormal tissue, in diseased human hearts in the future.

Co-investigators on the team include: Scott Fraser, PhD, Provost Professor of Biological Sciences and Biomedical Engineering; Megan McCain, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering; Mark Frey, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics; and Henry Sucov, PhD, professor of stem cell and regenerative medicine.

— Jennifer Marcus