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Taking ‘Do No Harm’ to Heart

By “reprogramming” a patient’s cells to create new heart muscle cells, Health Sciences MD-PhD Candidate Ike Royal Chinyere and his mentor Steven Goldman, MD, are finding ways to improve treatments for heart-failure patients.
Ike Chinyere solders wiring for a cardiac electrophysiology model to study heart arrhythmias. Steven Goldman, MD, and Elizabeth Juneman, MD, research mentors, in background.

Taking ‘Do No Harm’ to Heart

No doctor wants to treat a patient with a medication that’s worse than the disease. Ike Royal Chinyere, MD-PhD candidate at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson, is developing a system that may help doctors select the most effective and minimally toxic drugs for heart failure patients.

Born and raised in Kingman, Arizona, to Anselm and Stella, a pharmacist and a nurse who emigrated from Nigeria, Chinyere moved to Tucson for his undergraduate studies in honors physiology after high school.

“Starting in my high school courses, I developed a deep respect for the heart and its intricacies,” Chinyere says. “It truly is amazing how electrical activity precisely controls the mechanical activity and they work together incessantly for decades.”

Ike Chinyere with Steven Goldman, MD, and Elizabeth Juneman, MDThis fascination with the cardiovascular system in healthy states and disease states fuels Chinyere’s drive for medical innovation.

As an undergraduate, Chinyere began performing research in the UArizona Sarver Heart Center under the mentorship of accomplished physician-scientists, including Steven Goldman, MD, professor of medicine, Elizabeth Juneman, MD, associate professor of medicine, and Jil Tardiff, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine. Chinyere has been developing a platform to evaluate drug effectiveness and toxicity for different conditions, such as heart failure and atrial fibrillation.

This platform is more specific than the models now used by large pharmaceutical companies and regulatory agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, which often fail to accurately predict effects in patients.

“As our skill in creating therapies improves, our ability to screen these complex therapies must quickly follow suit, in order to protect the public,” Chinyere says.

“I developed a deep respect for the heart and its intricacies. It truly is amazing how they work together incessantly for decades.”
Ike Royal Chinyere, MD-PhD candidate at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson

Chinyere’s focus and accomplishments have led to numerous research and academic awards. He was deemed a nationally competitive applicant for MD-PhD programs across the country, and he chose the University of Arizona.

“It was through my mentors, both academically and personally, that I learned the skills and the character necessary to succeed,” Chinyere says. “Though I had the opportunity to pursue professional education elsewhere, I felt my story was not over in Tucson, and I had the faith that all I needed to continue thriving was here.”

Chinyere’s long-time mentor, Dr. Goldman, came to the University of Arizona Health Sciences in 1975. He has devoted his career to cardiology and academic medicine, and has mentored many students over the course of his career.

“We are very proud of the collaborative atmosphere in our laboratory, where senior scientists and young students work side-by-side, sharing ideas and doing experiments,” Dr. Goldman says. “We have high school students, university undergraduates, medical students, MD-PhD students, postdoctoral students and professors in the lab.”

For the past 40 years, the Goldman Lab has focused its research on heart failure, its causes and development of new treatments. One current project involves the development of a therapeutic patch for heart failure patients.

“We now have a new way to treat heart failure using cardiomyocytes derived from induced pluripotent stem cells,” says Dr. Goldman.

University of Arizona Health Sciences researchers are working on better ways to predict a drug’s effects in patients, helping to bring precision medicine to heart failure patients.

The research team includes Jordan Lancaster, PhD, assistant professor of medicine and assistant research scientist at Sarver Heart Center, and Jen Koevary, PhD, research assistant professor of biomedical engineering. Together they have developed a cardiac patch seeded with cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells) created by “reprogramming” donor cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells. This patch is implanted surgically on the surface of the heart and has the potential to be one of the first regenerative therapies in cardiology.

Chinyere’s research revealed that this patch can be reformulated to treat more than just heart failure: It also can be used as a screening platform. It functions very similarly to a real human heart and may predict drug effects better than current models.

“My vision is to incorporate components of precision medicine into the drug-screening world, to continue to avoid patient harm, but also ensure that revolutionary drugs make it through the development pipeline,” Chinyere says.

Now in his third year of the MD-PhD program, Chinyere’s doctoral studies focus on cardiac electrophysiology in the physiological sciences program. Chinyere is funded by the National Institutes of Health under the local supervision of Carol Gregorio, PhD, vice dean of innovation and development and director of the Molecular Cardiovascular Research Program, and John Konhilas, PhD, associate professor of cellular and molecular medicine and biomedical engineering.

“It is said that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I love where I am and I love what I do,” Chinyere says. “I pay homage to my many mentors for giving me opportunities to succeed, my family for supporting me though challenging times and my friends for giving me reasons to smile.”