Vol. 19, No. 4Sept. 23, 1999

Student team investigates heart disease

Howard Hughes Medical Institute scholars Matthew Russell and Madhavi Voothuri work with the biological sciences department's DNA sequencer.

Turing last summer, seven University of Delaware undergraduates were part of a unique research team, thanks to support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Project director Harold B. White, chemistry and biochemistry, said HHMI scholars are involved in a variety of projects, generally with one or two undergraduate research scholars working on a project with a faculty adviser. Students are very focused on one area of research.

But, this group of seven, White said, with four other undergraduate researchers, worked together under the supervision of four faculty members and three postdoctoral fellows on different approaches to the same problem, to determine the root causes of heart disease. It was a cohesive group that even spent free time together, he said.

David C. Usher led the faculty team, which included William J. Cain, Robert C. Hodson and Gregory A. Stephens, all biological sciences. The seven HHMI scholars worked with two Peter White Fellowship students and two Science and Engineering Fellowship scholars.

One aspect of the research, in association with Johns Hopkins University, centered on identifying the defective gene in familial combined hyperlipidemia (FCHL), a disease that may account for 20 percent of all heart disease.

Usher said his lab has discovered that fat-binding proteins normally associated with HDL or good cholesterol are abnormally distributed in the blood of people with FCHL. That causes the breakdown and removal of triglycerides from the fat cells to be retarded.

"We are ... trying to identify this defective gene using sophisticated molecular techniques," Usher said.

In another aspect of the research, the team used the turtle as a model animal for studying fat transport. Since turtle HDL appears to be less complicated than human HDL, the researchers tried to determine how HDLs remove cholesterol from turtle blood.

"Studying turtle HDL will allow us to better define the involvement of these different HDLs in cholesterol transport," Usher said.

One group worked to determine the sequence of genes important for the transport of fat, and a second group examined how HDLs are metabolized.

Usher said he considers these students one of the finest groups of undergraduate researchers that he has worked with. "They are a remarkably productive group. Some have been working on this project for less than three months and are already nearing publication," he said.

White said the students' collaboration has been successful because they share ideas, research interests and financial resources. He described them as functioning like an "extended family," whose learning experience has been enhanced by their close association.

The University of Delaware has received two million-dollar grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to support undergraduate education in the biomedical sciences.

The first $400,000 of a four-year, $1.6 million grant awarded in 1998 from HHMI's Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education Program was used, in part, to fund 19 undergraduate students' research at UD last summer-seven of whom were on the heart disease team. Through the grant, each of the 19 students received $3,000 stipends and laboratory expenses up to $750.

HHMI created the Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education Program to enhance undergraduate student education by exposing students to research, allowing them to apply what they are being taught.

Since 1988, HHMI has funded more than $425 million in grants to 220 colleges and universities, making it "the largest private initiative of its kind in U.S. history," according to an HHMI publication.

UD received its first $1 million award in 1992. This five-year grant was used to develop new undergraduate research laboratories in molecular biology, provide stipends for students doing independent research and recruit and maintain more minority students in the sciences. The grant allowed the creation of five advanced experimental undergraduate labs; stipends for students doing independent research during summer and winter sessions; and a new program to recruit, retain and graduate talented under-represented minority students.

HHMI scholars involved in undergraduate research are asked not to take any classes during the summer but to devote the entire 10 weeks to their investigations. At the end of the summer, each must submit a written report outlining his or her work. They also are expected to continue their research throughout the year in a program coordinated by Joan S. Bennett, Honors Program. At the end of the year, in the spring, they present poster sessions or talks on their research.

-Barbara Garrison
Photo by Robert Cohen