Irina V. Smirnova, Ph.D.
Director, Ph.D. program
KU Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science
Diabetes is a serious chronic condition – one which is steadily worsening in the United States. Research in the Diabetes Research Laboratory aims to address cardiovascular complications of diabetes.
Scientific work in the lab has been made possible by grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, and U.S. Department of Commerce.
Diabetic heart disease and the benefits of exercise
Among individuals with diabetes, cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death. As a result of diabetes, the heart muscle becomes stiff and weak and is therefore unable to efficiently supply blood to the body. Fibrosis of the cardiac muscle, which results from an increased accumulation of extracellular matrix proteins, develops during diabetes and this makes the muscle stiffer.
Diabetes also damages the structural components of cardiac muscles. Since physical exercise is known to improve heart performance, the lab is interested in uncovering the biochemical and molecular mechanisms that benefit cardiac muscle.
By using a non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique, KU researchers have been able to demonstrate that physical exercise does indeed improve the diabetic heart's ability to contract and relax. Additionally, research has shown that exercise corrected some of the structural defects of the diabetic heart muscle.
The lab has also found a specific drug which affects one of the critical molecules responsible for causing heart stiffness in individuals suffering from diabetes. This drug can partially mimic the effects of physical exercise and is an important resource in finding a pharmacological agent that would regulate the same molecule in a manner similar to exercise. This would be an invaluable resource for people with diabetes that are unable to exercise due to complications of the disease.
Changes in cardiac protein structure due to diabetes
By utilizing proteomics, the large-scale study of protein structure and function, KU scientists are working toward identifying the changes in cardiac proteins due to diabetes. Ongoing research is focused on how these protein changes may influence diminished performance in the hearts of those with diabetes. By discovering a clear understanding as to what changes diabetes elicits in proteins and how these changes affect the protein function, researchers can develop therapies to prevent protein damage and help heart tissue to withstand the harmful effects of diabetes.