Assistant professor of biology Lisa Close-Jacob once swerved into a White Castle for a cup of coffee on her way to work and scared the wits out of the woman at the drive-up window. After handing Close-Jacob her coffee, the woman looked into the car and noticed a bucket on the floor.
“Is that paint?” the woman asked.
“No,” Close-Jacob said, driving off.
It wasn’t until a few moments later that she realized what the woman at the register must have been thinking. The bucket was filled with Close-Jacob’s research material. Fresh cow hearts.
Several times each semester, Close-Jacob drives to a slaughterhouse in Cincinnati and purchases a bucketful of cow hearts, which she lugs back to her lab at the University. There, she and several of her biology students don rubber gloves and deftly detach the left anterior descending artery from the outside of each heart, where it’s held fast by fat and connective tissue.
Close-Jacob uses the arteries to research how certain molecules present in some heart attack victims may be inadvertently contributing to their hearts’ demise. “This is just one small piece of a story, but it could provide valuable information toward understanding why inflammation contributes to heart attacks,” she says. “A person at risk for a heart attack may gain a treatment that might prevent it from happening in the first place.”
Advanced senior biology majors help Close-Jacob with the actual research, suspending tiny quarter-inch segments of artery between wires in a transducer and bathing the white tissue, which is still alive, in solutions of nutrients and oxygen. They control the amount of oxygen present, then introduce test elements to study whether or not the artery tissue expands.
Close-Jacob believes at least one molecule, interleukin-6, which is present when the heart tissue is inflamed, prevents arteries from dilating when oxygen levels are low. If the arteries can’t dilate, they can’t send oxygen to the heart, which alone may cause the heart to fail.
Her five years of research on interleukin-6 is almost ready for publication. All she needs is to complete two more experiments to fill out her data. That’s about a year’s worth of trips to the slaughterhouse—and a few more stops at the drive-through.