May 15, 1998

International conference to probe cardiovascular development issues

International conference to probe cardiovascular development issues

Distinguishing left from right is a skill you probably mastered by the time you went to school.

But your developing body knew the difference during your early days in the womb. Somehow, in about the fourth week of gestation, your body knew to form your heart on the left side of your chest.

How the developing embryo tells left from right is one of the issues that will be addressed later this month when more than 300 scientists, clinicians and biomedical engineers gather at Vanderbilt University Medical Center for the 1998 Weinstein Conference in Cardiovascular Development.

The international conference, which will be May 28-31 in Light Hall, is a major forum for the discussion of recent advances in cardiovascular development and human congenital heart disease.

"The whole idea of how an embryo tells left from right is very important," said Joey V. Barnett, Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine and Pharmacology. Barnett and David M. Bader, Ph.D., Gladys Parkinson Stahlman Professor of Cardiovascular Research, are co-organizers of the conference.

"Our left heart is very different from our right heart. You can imagine that if problems occur and the embryo cannot correctly distinguish between left and right, you can get into serious trouble."

The conference, in its fifth year, will be attended by representatives of virtually every major academic medical center in the Unites States as well as from Canada, Japan and Europe. The event is named for Dr. Constance Weinstein, longtime administrator in the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

The matters discussed at the conference have significant implications for both pediatric and adult cardiology, Barnett said.

About one in 100 children born in the United States has congenital heart disease, and the estimated cost of caring for these infants exceeds $1 billion a year. In addition, the processes involved in the genesis of the cardiovascular system are likely to also play a role in remodeling and healing that system throughout life.

"Gaining a clearer understanding of these processes also has implications for heart disease that develops later in life, such as the response of the heart muscle to injury and the alterations in blood vessels during atherosclerosis," Barnett said.

The conference will kick off Thursday, May 28, with a keynote address in the University Club by Dr. David Cheresh of the University of California-San Diego. Cheresh, who will discuss "Neovascularization: Role of the Extracellular Matrix," investigates the adhesion molecules that allow cells to stick together and form developing blood vessels.

The conference will include presentations from more than 30 scientists, including several "heavy hitters" in the rapidly advancing field of left-right asymmetry, Barnett said. This focus of research will be highlighted during the evening presentations on Friday, May 29.

Among them:

o Mark Mercola, Ph.D., of Harvard University, who studies gap junction proteins and the possibility that mutations in these proteins are responsible for the development of the heart on the right side of the body.

o Joseph Yost, Ph.D., of the University of Utah, who will present an overview of left-right asymmetry and the importance of heart development in that process. Yost¹s research was recently featured on the cover of the scientific journal Cell.

o Martina Breuckner, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist from Yale University, who studies a class of molecules called dyneins that appear to be very important in the development of left-right asymmetry.

o Baruch S. Ticho, Ph.D., M.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital, who will discuss the role of activin receptors in asplenia syndrome, in which the spleen is missing, and other abnormalities of mid-line structures.

o Yiping Chen, Ph.D., of Tulane University, who studies a transcription factor called Pitx2 that provides a critical signal as the embryo determines left from right during development.

The Weinstein Conference, held at a different major medical center each year, has grown from about 60 participants in 1994 to more than 300 this year. Its major accomplishment is in providing a forum for basic scientists, clinicians and even biomedical engineers to share their knowledge and expertise, Barnett said.

"This is really a feather in our cap that Vanderbilt was chosen as the site for this conference," Barnett said. "Our selection is recognition of VUMC¹s strong program in developmental biology as well as the reputation of our clinical program in pediatric cardiology and of our growing adult cardiology program.

"It¹s exciting because the scientists who are presenting at this conference are real contributors in the field. We also hope that, by bringing so many experts together with an interest in congenital heart disease, we can begin to build strong collaborations to work together. We want to start putting this story together as it relates to human disease."

For more information about the conference, call 936-1974 or visit the conference¹s web site at