Heart attacks and other cardiovascular conditions kill thousands of Americans every day. As a high school student, that statistic turned personal for recent Elon graduate Amanda Clark.
“My grandfather passed away in his early 40s before my parents were even married. Then when I was a junior in high school, my uncle also passed away at the age of 41,” she said. “He didn’t even know he had heart disease. It always makes me worry for my own father, who is older than my uncle was.”
It’s not surprising that as a biochemistry major at Elon, Clark focused her research on identifying certain ways that heart disease develops, which could in turn lead to better treatments. Working with associate professor Kathy Matera, and thanks to the support of Elon’s prestigious Lumen Prize for academic and creative achievements, Clark examined a specific type of receptor on cells that triggers an “alarm” to the immune system when the cell is invaded by oxidized lipids.
“The receptor that I’m working with is called TLR-4, and when activated it sends out an alarm that something is going wrong in the body,” Clark said.
These alarm cells are meant to help the situation, but because of their volume, that’s not always the case.
“If there was a fire, you’d want firefighters to come to stop the fire, but if there are too many, there are too many people to get any work done. This is what happens within the body” and leads to plaque buildup, Clark said.
The 2011 graduate from Skaneateles, N.Y., examined how the receptor TLR-4 binds with a molecule known as fibrinogen.
“I’m looking at how they bind, where they bind and how well they bind,” she said. “If you can answer all those questions, you can hope to create an inhibitor to block this interaction.”
Clark said that, although changing diet and exercise habits has been the focus of heart disease prevention, there are inherited traits that cause one to be more susceptible to it.
“A lot of different drugs that are out there now stop interactions in the body and inhibit certain proteins,” she said. “If we know how fibrinogen binds, we can maybe make a different version.”
Clark participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program in 2008, working on campus with Matera, and in 2009 she took part in the Summer Research Training Program at the University of California at San Francisco. She twice received an honorable mention in the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship Program, a national competition that awards scholarships to students planning for careers in science, math or engineering. She will begin medical school this fall at the University of Rochester.