Dr. Deepak Srivastava, director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco, Calif., recently received the 2012 Abraham White Scientific Achievement Award from The George Washington University for his research on thymosin beta-4 and its ability to repair damaged cells in individuals who have suffered from heart attacks and other cardiac diseases.
“When adults have heart attacks, their heart muscle dies. The heart has little capacity to regenerate itself. People have heart failures or need a heart transplant, and most people don’t get it,” Srivastava told India-West in a recent interview.
“This is a problem in South Asians and Indian Americans who have a much higher risk of heart disease,” added the pediatric cardiologist.
Srivastava joined Gladstone in 2005 and since then, has continually worked with colleagues and scientists to find ways to create new muscle within the heart that can integrate with existing muscle and help strengthen the pumping of the heart.
Gladstone, a nonprofit biomedical research-based organization affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco, focuses on cardiovascular, viral and neurological disease research. The institute has made several scientific breakthroughs with the help of doctors like Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who is credited for investigating ways to convert adult skin cells into stem cells.
“He found that one could convert skin cells into a cell that behaved just like an embryonic stem cell. The embryonic stem cell has properties that can turn into any stem cell type in the human body,” said Srivastava.
Yamanaka’s discovery later led to other scientific developments at Gladstone such as the successful conversion of an adult cell into a new heart cell without going through the initial stages of becoming a stem cell.
Srivastava has been witness to the institute’s accomplishments over the years, which include the discovery of genes that play a significant role in instructing heart cells to become a heart cell in the developing embryo.
“We found that many of those same genes are mutated or altered in families and individuals with congenital malformation and have discovered many genes that cause such diseases,” explained Srivastava.
Most recently, the institute’s researchers were able to convert non-muscle cells into new muscle cells to help regenerate the heart. A detailed report of the research will be published in the journal, Nature, in the upcoming months.
South Asians are at high risk for heart disease, but there are preventative measures that individuals can take, according to Srivastava. Ways to prevent heart problems from arising include monitoring cholesterol levels and lipoprotein A, taking medication to lower cholesterol, avoiding smoking and continuing to exercise and maintain a healthy diet.
Srivastava, who is also a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco and director of the Roddenberry Center for Stem Cell Biology, told India-West individuals who have immigrated to the West and have been exposed to western diets are at an even higher risk for heart disease.
Gladstone is currently working on a few new research projects such as cardiac reprogramming, a process that involves reprogramming cells in the heart to become new muscle, using large animals such as pigs as test subjects. The Indian American cardiologist explained that the technology has to first be approved for a clinical trial.
The institute is also working to find more genes that cause heart defects in children and preventive measures individuals can take. When asked about some of the controversy attached to stem cell research, Srivastava said that the discovery of new types of stem cells at Gladstone has, in a sense, removed the ethical debate since the destruction of embryo or IPS cells is not involved in the process.
“There is still a lot of work to be done, but the field is moving quite fast and each month we’re seeing discoveries getting us closer and closer,” he told India-West.
As of now, Srivastava hopes to carry on Gladstone’s legacy by continuing to push for innovation while bringing stem cell biology to the forefront and recruiting new talent.