The heart and blood vessels are the first functional organs that form during embryonic development. As early as the fourth week pregnancy, the heart has formed and blood is circulating in the primitive vessels. Blood flow brings many things to the developing embryo. It carries oxygen and nutrients, and protein signals necessary for proper growth of the embryo. As well, blood flow creates forces on the vessel walls, namely shear stress and mechanical strain. In adults, these forces are known to regulate many aspects of the branching architecture of the cardiovascular system. The role of these forces during embryonic development, however, has been studied very little.
My research is interested in calculating the forces created by early blood flow in the embryo and varying these forces in predictable manners in order to understand whether this causes changes in cardiovascular architecture or gene expression.
Cardiovascular malformations are the most common birth defect in humans. One in every hundred babies born suffers from some sort of cardiovascular malformation. It is also believed that many miscarriages and still births are caused by improper development of the cardiovascular system. It is therefore essential that we understand how this system develops if we are to prevent these malformations from occurring. Beyond embryonic development, my research is applicable to tissue engineering where researchers are trying to create artificial vessels. If we know the inputs necessary for the embryo to form functional vessels, then we should be able to recreate the process. Therefore the applications of this research reach beyond embryos and will give us a greater understanding of how blood vessels are formed and what inputs are required to make vessels functional.