Tom Liu, a third-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, has received an American Heart Association Student Scholarship in Cardiovascular Diseases for research he is conducting under the mentorship of Robert Gourdie, professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and director of the VTCRI Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine Research.

The scholarship is awarded to medical or predoctoral graduate students who are researching cardiovascular disease topics within a basic, clinical, or population sciences framework and is based on the quality of a proposal, the institution’s supporting supervision, and the student’s academic achievement.

Liu’s research with Gourdie explores the organization and interaction between sodium channels and the protein connexin43 and what relationship this might have on the development of abnormal heart rhythms after a heart attack. It is well established that sodium channels and connexins are both involved with electrical signaling in the heart.

“We’re thinking sodium channels may interact with connexins during electrical conduction in the heart,” Liu said.

Following a heart attack, a thin border of cells forms around the heart’s scar tissue. Called the injury border zone, this region houses an abnormal arrangement of connexin and prompts an increased chance of arrhythmias when electrical signals try to pass through.

“We know the spatial pattern of connexins is abnormal after a heart attack,” Liu said. “But no one has ever looked at what happens to sodium channels. So the gist of my project explores what happens to the pattern of arrangement of the sodium channels in relation to connexins in the injury border zone after a heart attack.”

To do this, Liu, in collaboration with team members in the Gourdie lab, will measure the organization of sodium channels and connexins in both scarred and healthy regions of the heart and to determine whether a promising peptide therapy developed in the Gourdie laboratory could potentially help patients.

Liu’s project will serve as part of his research requirement. The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine has a rigorous research requirement in which all students participate in an intensive, longitudinal program that originates with an original hypothesis-driven formulation of a project and culminates in a presentation at a national/international meeting and a manuscript of publication quality, many of which are submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.

Liu, who participated in clinical trials research at the University of California, San Francisco, before starting medical school, expects research will always have a role in his career.

“I think our skill set is unique from other health professions because we are trained to generate new knowledge and think about new and innovative ways to approach patient care,” Liu said.