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Mapping the heart

Mapping the heart

In April 2017, Mateusz Hołda successfully defended his PhD thesis, even though at the time he was still an MSc student at the JU MC Faculty of Medicine. It’s the first such case in Poland.

This singular event was made possible thanks to the Diamond Grant, a Ministry of Science and Higher Education scholarship for gifted students. It allows MA/MSc students to be admitted to a PhD programme before they’re awarded their master’s degree. Though extraordinary, it isn’t the first great accomplishment of the young researcher, whose scientific output already amounts to 26 papers.

Mariusz Kopiejka, JU Press Office: The subject of your doctoral thesis, Mitral isthmus and cavotricuspid isthmus – anatomical basis for ablation of arrhythmogenic substrate, shows that you’re interested in the anatomy of the heart. Could you elaborate a little?

Dr Mateusz Hołda: My research is focused on the heart, not only on the macroscopic and microscopic level – that is, anatomy and histology – but also genetics. I’m interested in the molecular structure of the cardiac muscle. I conduct my research on samples taken from donors at the JU Department of Forensic Medicine as well as using CT scan results and heart sonograms obtained from the University Hospital in Kraków. We also perform tests on laboratory animals. Most of the work takes place at the JU MC Chair in Anatomy. I lead the Heart Embryology and Anatomy Research Team (HEART), which comprises seven members, some of whom are also employed at other university units. We also collaborate with outside institutions, such as the University of Agriculture in Kraków and AGH University of Science and Technology.

Are there any practical applications of your research?

It’s basic research. It’s not our aim to make money. That said, electrocardiologsts (cardiologists who use electronic equipment to monitor the heart) and invasive cardiologists will find it very useful, since greater knowledge about the cardiac muscle will lead to fewer complications during medical procedures. They can’t see the heart, because they use low invasive methods, so excellent knowledge of anatomy is required.

We’re constantly mapping the heart. All our papers and projects are focused on some aspect of it. When we finish, we plan to publish a full study that will give us the full image of this important organ. Aside from detailed description, it will consist of computer programmes and holograms.

It would seem that in the 21st century we should know everything there is to know about the heart…

In the past, there was no need to know every detail. It was the development of cardiac catheterisation in electrocardiology, invasive cardiology, and interventional cardiology that made knowing the anatomy of the heart so important. As of today, several hundred thousand of such procedures are performed annually. Because it’s important to know the interrelations between different parts of the heart, morphometrics (measurement and description of organs) has become a particularly valued area. In time, our research will make surgical procedures much easier.

You won the Diamond Grant. That means you’ll receive the equivalent of over 50,000 euros for your research project. What are you going to do?

The project I'm working on under the supervision of Dr hab. Grzegorz Kopeć is devoted to studying the mechanisms of apoptosis in the left chamber of the cardiac muscle in rats with induced pulmonary hypertension. There is some proof that pulmonary hypertension – a rare disease with a high mortality rate, which is entirely different from the frequently diagnosed arterial hypertension – in its last stages causes atrophy of the left heart chamber. This issue is not well researched. There’s even been talk about the ‘forgotten’ left chamber in this disease entity. We’re going to take a crack at the molecular mechanisms and causes of left chamber atrophy. We’ve already completed the animal testing part, now we’re analysing the collected data. On the molecular level, heart functions very similarly in animals and humans, so we’ll gain a lot of valuable insight. When we find some promising leads, we’ll repeat the tests on human tissue.

When did you first become interested in science? What made you choose this field?

I was thinking about cardiology and cardiac surgery when I was admitted to the Faculty of Medicine. I became interested in being a researcher in 2013, when I was in my third year. It was then that together with Dr hab. Wiesława Klimek-Piotrowska we founded HEART. We’ve been expanding ever since. We’re constantly taking up new projects and receiving additional grants. Apart from me, the team currently comprises three doctors, two students and, naturally, Dr hab. Klimek-Piotrowska.

What are you working on at the moment?

We’re investigating the morphometrics of human heart valves – aortic, pulmonary, and atrio-venticular. We’re studying hearts collected from donors and CT scans. By combining clinical and basic research, we hope to understand the anatomy of the heart even better.

In your opinion, what makes for a good heart researcher?

I think every researcher should be, first and foremost, inquisitive by nature. After all, you have to find a undeveloped niche for yourself. Diligence and tenacity are equally, if not even more important. Without everyday work, there are no results and no successes. There is also the question of finding the right collaborators, as it would be difficult to achieve any meaningful goal alone. I myself collaborate with nearly twenty other researchers. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to complete a single project.

And your plans for the future?

I’m thinking about post-doctoral internships abroad. But since I’m the head of four research projects, I think I’m going to be busy for a while.

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