Oct 12, 2012    #131
Contact: John Martellaro

UMKC Researchers Awarded Prestigious Predoctoral Fellowship Grants

Young scientists recognized by American Heart Association

Two graduate students in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri-Kansas City have earned highly competitive American Heart Association Predoctoral Fellowship Grants for their research into the basic science of cardiovascular disease.

The two grants, totaling a little over $100,000 over a two-year period, will provide support for the students' laboratory and dissertation work. Brian and Erika Geisbrecht, a couple who both are faculty in the School of Biological Sciences, are advising the students.

"We are grateful for the generosity of the American Heart Association in supporting these two outstanding students, who are conducting important research with the potential to save lives," Brian Geisbrecht said.

Bridget Biersmith

Working with Erika Geisbrecht, assistant professor of Cell Biology and Biophysics, Biersmith's research focuses on exploring the possible causes of congenital heart defects (CHDs). As these defects come in many forms, Geisbrecht and Biersmith believe understanding the early aspects of heart development might provide insights into the common denominator of these unfortunate abnormalities.

"For example, some individuals are born with holes in their hearts while others are born with thicker heart walls that can cause issues with blood flow," Biersmith said. "Even though the physical problems may manifest themselves in different manners, the basic developmental processes responsible for heart development are conserved from one individual to the next. The heart is a muscle, and understanding how this tissue develops will help us better understand some of the underlying causes of some types of CHDs. We feel that identifying the players that function in early heart development will contribute to the long-term goal of helping other researchers discover new drugs and therapies specific to these targets."

Biersmith's work focuses on two closely related DOCK (Dedicator of Cytokinesis) proteins, a family of related proteins involved in the body's intracellular signaling networks that affect a wide variety of cellular processes.

"We wish to establish the roles of these two proteins in heart development," she said. "Previous work in other tissues shows that these DOCK proteins have distinct roles in the processes of adhesion and cell migration, both of which occur in early heart development. As these proteins are expressed in the heart, we believe this is the best place to determine the exact roles these DOCK family members are playing and how they may contribute to CHDs."

Brandon Garcia

Under the guidance of Brian Geisbrecht, associate professor of Cell Biology and Biophysics, Garcia is using a structural biology approach to study the interaction of the pathogenic bacterium Staphylococcus aureus with the human innate immune system.

Their work centers on the body's "complement system," a central component of innate immunity that is responsible for marking pathogens that invade the body, such as Staphylococcus aureus, for destruction and clearance. The immune system is often described as a "double-edged" sword, however, and over-activation of complement following ischemia-related reperfusion (tissue damage caused by oxygen deprivation) has long been implicated as a major contributor to severe injury in cardiovascular and other tissues.

"Specifically, we are looking at a protein known as complement component C3, which has been identified as the key complement system protein responsible for mediating cerebral injury following stroke," Garcia said. "Numerous studies have suggested that inhibition of C3 activation can provide a means of protection against inflammatory processes, including those that can lead to ischemic injury. Surprisingly, bacteria and viruses have provided a considerable source of insight into how we might approach this problem. A detailed understanding of their sophisticated modes of complement inhibition provides us with the potential for development of new classes of drugs capable of treating complement-related diseases.

"We are employing a variety of biophysical and biochemical techniques that allow us explore this host-pathogen interaction at the molecular level," Garcia said. "This work will not only improve our understanding of how this pathogenic microorganism evades the human immune system, it also has the potential to accelerate drug discovery for a number of human autoimmune and inflammatory conditions. This aspect of our research supports the mission of the American Heart Association to build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular disease and stroke."

About the University of Missouri-Kansas City

The University of Missouri-Kansas City, one of four University of Missouri campuses, is a public university serving more than 15,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students. UMKC engages with the community and economy based on a four-part mission: life and health sciences; visual and performing arts; urban issues and education; and a vibrant learning and campus life experience. For more information about UMKC, visit You can also find us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and watch us on YouTube.

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