Experts engage in heart issues

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, UH researchers are proposing ideas to keep hearts healthy and ready for love.

A UH professor may have a solution to mend broken hearts: using a patient’s skin cells to repair damaged cardiovascular tissue. The breakthrough is pioneered by Robert Schwartz, a Cullen distinguished professor of biology and biochemistry at UH and researcher for the Texas Heart Institute.

“This is big,” Schwartz said. “And it is highly efficient.”

This process involves a combination of two things, Schwartz said. Though each factor is proprietary information, there is a general way of understanding how the process works.

According to a document by Rolando Garcia, first, the skin cells are treated with a factor to transform them into stem cells. These stem cells could then be used to treat several organs such as the heart, the brain, the pancreas, etc. Schwartz furthered the research by treating the cells with a second factor to turn them to early-stage heart cells.

“This is a world-class operation,” Schwartz said.  “We can activate beating heart cells with skin cells.”

Schwartz explained that though he may have made a scientific breakthrough, there are still questions that need to be tested through experiment.

“How well will these cells function? Will they last? Will they correct damaged hearts?” Schwartz said.

Schwartz has partnered with James T. Willerson, the president-elect and director of the Texas Heart Institute, to further the heart research.

“(Willerson) has provided extraordinary resources to help me do this,” Schwartz said.

Before coming to UH, Schwartz did 33 years of heart research at the Baylor College of Medicine. After leaving Baylor, he ventured out to continue his research at the Texas A&M Health and Science Center. He was later offered a position at UH, where he has been since December 2009.

“I felt UH was serious, and that attracted me,” Schwartz said. “It look likes it’s a place on the go… and this [breakthrough] will help UH reach its Flagship status.”

Schwartz has another vision in mind too: to one day create a human heart outside of the human body.

“This is a long-term vision I share with Willerson,” Schwartz said.

Those who are looking to strengthen their hearts and make them healthy and alive for their valentines can look into the 2008 SAving Lives Staying Active research project, done by associate professor of Health and Human Performance Rebecca Lee.

Lee was inspired by a similar program being conducted in Guadalajara, Mexico, and decided to launch the SALSA program at UH.

“I wanted to replicate that study and do more measurements,” Lee said.

The SALSA study was aimed to increase physical activity through salsa dancing and increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables among women. Lee and her team put out notices around the community asking women to volunteer for the study.

Most of the women who decided to participate were overweight African Americans and Mexican Americans, according to Lee.

After recruitment was complete, the research team divided the women into two groups. One group focused on a Web site designed specifically for the program. It provided helpful information such as healthy recipes, portion control and step-by-step processes to eating healthier.

The other group was asked to participate in salsa dance classes. The women were partnered with an accelerometer to measure their intensity of physical activity.

Lee said she encourages salsa dance because it is very aerobic and fast.

“Physical activity helps your immune system, helps you lose weight and can (prevent) diabetes. It makes you happier too,” Lee said.

The study solely focused on women because of the differences between men and women physically. The research team kept track of the women who participated in the study even after it ended, and they found some impressive results.

“(The women) increased their physical activity on average about 1 hour and 45 minutes a week,” Lee said. “Nobody likes exercise … so it is important to have something you really enjoy doing.”

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