Working to keep the beat

Arun Sharma '12 on heart health

Among other things, February is known as a month in which we should consider matters of the heart. Which means, in a way, every month is February for Arun Sharma ’12.

Sharma ’12 is, as his website says, a stem cell & heart biologist, a gene editor, and a space enthusiast. About that last item—Sharma grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, where, because it’s the home of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, all things outer space-related rule.

Although he never made it to Space Camp (“I’m still bummed about that”), the schools are almost all named for space shuttles or astronauts, so “there was a constant influence,” Sharma says. “It was an awesome place to grow up.”

That’s why it was particularly awesome that as a Ph.D. student at Stanford, Sharma got to be part of a project that sent heart cells aboard a SpaceX Dragon to the International Space Station. “We have an idea of what happens to the heart in space at the organ level,” he says. The heart changes shape and loses some of its muscle size; that’s why astronauts have to work out for two to three hours a day, he says. “But we don’t know what happens at the cellular level in human heart cells in low gravity.”

In the last decade, Sharma says, scientists have gained the ability to produce human heart cells without surgery. So, for this project, millions of human heart cells were made from a small amount of skin and sent to the space station for a month. The findings are about to be published, but an excited Sharma says, in general, they learned researchers can distill the information they’ve learned about organ-level changes in low gravity down to the level of a single cell.

Sharma’s love of science comes honestly. His father is a professor and a physicist, so science was heavily valued in his home. He says his interest in the heart comes, in part, from family members and friends who’ve suffered from heart disease. But also, “the heart is a unique organ, in that it doesn’t regenerate. If you have a heart attack and it’s serious, the attack can diminish the heart’s function for the rest of your life. I want to see if I can help develop something down the line that can help the heart repair itself.”

At Duke, he earned a B.S. in biology with a concentration in cell and molecular biology, minored in chemistry, and received a certificate in genome sciences and policy. He was pre-med for a couple of years, he says, but “I’ve always believed in pushing the frontier, doing something no one has done before.” As it turns out, he’s married to a budding cardiologist: his wife, Shilpa Sharma ’12, is starting her cardiology fellowship. “She keeps me up-to-date on the clinical side,” he says. “Maybe we’ll work together and figure out new ways to heal the heart.”

In the meanwhile, Sharma’s plenty busy as a researcher. By leveraging the same technique to mass-produce beating human heart cells, he’s now studying how the human heart develops. “We can model human heart development in a dish,” he says. “Someday we may be able to learn why some babies are born with heart defects, down to the exact genetic variation.” He’s active, too, on LinkedIn and Twitter (@ArunSharmaPhD), both as an ambassador to help explain scientific research to lay people and as a way of disseminating ideas and learning what other labs are doing.

And when it comes to your heart, he has simple but relevant advice for its care, this month and year-round: Exercise and eat well.  “We’re working on a lot of things to help the heart, but those discoveries are going to take time. Take good care of your heart for as long as you can and as well as you can.”

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