Eric Wauson, Ph.D., has been awarded more than $200,000 by the American Heart Association (AHA) to fund his research into autophagy in relation to the heart. Autophagy is a normal process cells use to save themselves from starvation. They feast on their own proteins, breaking them down into amino acids to provide enough nutrients to survive. It’s a process that occurs during a heart attack when cells are dying due to a lack of oxygen and nutrients. The three-year grant will help Wauson investigate whether inducing autophagy can actually keep heart cells alive during and after a heart attack.
“Autophagy is thought to be a protective response. There’s a lot of recent interest in looking at autophagy as a therapeutic process,” says Wauson, an assistant professor in physiology and pharmacology. “Cardiovascular disease is a huge societal burden, and better preventative strategies and treatments are desperately needed.”
Working as an electrocardiogram technician in college, Wauson saw firsthand the suffering caused by cardiovascular disease. As he started his research career, he wanted to relate his interests at the cellular and biochemical levels back to real human disease to potentially find therapeutic targets. His previous research found there are certain G-protein coupled receptors within cells that sense amino acids and turn autophagy on or off. Interestingly, these receptors are the same ones found in taste buds and “taste” the amino acids like when a savory piece of meat hits the tongue. He discovered that by inhibiting the signal in these receptors, the cells are tricked into thinking they are starving and induce autophagy. In his new research, Wauson proposes that inhibiting this receptor in heart cells can protect against hypoxia during myocardial infarction.
“We’re mimicking the conditions you see in a heart attack by taking oxygen and nutrients away from the cells. We then compare normal cells to cells that have had the receptor knocked down. We’re seeing if knocking down the receptor will protect the cells that are in those conditions,” he says.
The same process may also help prevent atherosclerosis, another common problem in heart patients. Autophagy has shown to be protective against this build-up of fats and cholesterol in the arteries and can keep it from progressing into more severe disease. That’s another area Wauson will investigate as part of the AHA grant.
“There are over 700 G-protein coupled receptors in the human genome and they’re really good drug targets. Only a small fraction of them are targeted by current drugs,” he says. “That’s the exciting part of this. It could potentially become a target for a drug that you could give to patients that come into the hospital with a myocardial infarction to help reduce some of the cellular death and save lives.”