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Currents--University of Rochester newspaper

$1.6 million awarded for heart research

Rochester engineers are using their mathematical skills to learn more about one of the most remarkable machines of all: the human heart.

Renato Perucchio and his colleagues have been awarded $1.6 million to study how the heart develops from a feebly pumping, millimeter-long tube found in young embryos to the robust four-chambered organ that keeps most animals alive. The four-year project is funded by the National Institutes of Health and is led by former Rochester professor Larry Taber, now at Washington University in St. Louis. Perucchio, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is heading the portion of the project where engineers develop complex computer-based models to describe and predict with numbers the nuances of the heart's mechanics.

The team's work takes a pioneering look at the biomechanical forces that shape the heart in its earliest stages. In their studies the team is focusing on chicken embryos--eggs like those people eat, except that they've been fertilized. The hearts of chickens and many other animals are similar to those of humans, and any new findings in chick embryos should give physicians key information in treating heart disease in humans.

"There are plenty of embryologists who study how the heart develops, but they almost always look at heart development from a genetic perspective," said Perucchio. "Genes certainly play an important role, but it's hard to deny that biomechanical stresses are also key factors in shaping the heart. We know that patterns of blood flow and the pumping-induced growth of cardiac muscle both affect the thickness of the walls in different parts of the heart. These effects, combined with the bending caused by the growth of nearby tissue, eventually cause the heart to assume its shape."

The work should help physicians understand the cardiac mechanics of heart disease patients with dangerously enlarged hearts, such as congestive heart failure sufferers. The research could also have important ramifications for much younger patients: One in 100 babies is born with a heart defect, making it the leading cause of congenital infant death in the United States.

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