Computer Simulations Aid Cardiac Research

Posted: January 9, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Patty Snellings

Since many people struggle to understand the relationship between a gene and a chromosome, imagine the confusion when terms like protein structure and biochemical pathways are tossed around. But when scientists explain how their research touches lives, people begin to pay attention.

Saleet Jafri, an associate professor in the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology program at the Prince William Campus, is one of these scientists. His cardiac research focuses on the cellular mechanisms that regulate contraction and energy metabolism, which governs the heart’s response to exercise and is disrupted during a heart attack. Developing a detailed understanding of these areas is crucial for the development of new therapies for heart disease.

“We know that cells use waves of elevated calcium concentration to communicate,” Jafri says. “These waves trigger hormone or enzyme secretions, control energy metabolism, initiate contraction, or regulate gene expression. In the heart, abnormal calcium regulation can lead to cardiac arrhythmias and dysfunctional contractions of the heart muscle. By studying calcium activity within the cardiac cell, we can better understand the mechanisms controlling contractions and how to minimize the damage of a heart attack or possibly intervene before severe damage occurs.”

Jafri also looks at how immune response affects the heart. “T cells, or lymphocytes, regulate the activity of the immune system and destroy infected cells. Once we understand what elicits different responses, we can identify new targets for drugs to act on.” These discoveries will assist in the development of new immunosuppressive drugs, as well as new therapies that may help boost the immune response in an individual, he explains.

A melding of biology, mathematics, and computer science creates the 21st century technology that Jafri uses in his research. He has developed computer models that simulate the activity of heart cells in response to different substances and reactions. “Data from animal studies are extrapolated to create computer models that can be applied to humans,” he says. “Simulations allow us to make and test predictions faster and with less experimentation.”

“George Mason’s program in bioinformatics and computational biology is aimed at training the next generation of computational biologists who will need fundamental biological knowledge and computational skills to analyze and model all the new information that is now available,” says John Grefenstette, who oversees the program. He explains that bioinformatics is the use of information technology to store and analyze biological information, and computational biology involves the development of computational models of biological systems.

The university offers master’s and doctoral programs in bioinformatics. The master’s program is designed to meet the immediate need for biotechnology professionals with a good understanding of modern biotechnology and strong computational skills. The doctoral program, which Jafri coordinates, attracts professionals who want to push the limits of this new field by creating the new tools and models.

Although there are other graduate programs in bioinformatics in the region, Grefenstette feels that George Mason offers a unique approach by combining disciplines into one academic unit. Bioinformatics requires a specialized mix of knowledge that sets it apart from its component disciplines of biology, mathematics, and computer science, he says.

“One of the big ways computational biology will affect us all during this century is by making it possible to personalize medical care to a patient’s genetic differences,” adds Grefenstette. “Dr. Jafri’s research can help reach this goal.”

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