CURF 1: An Introduction to My Project

Hello! My name is Roman Storozynsky and I am a senior pre-medical student here at the University of Pittsburgh. At Pitt, I am pursuing a BS in Neuroscience with minors in Exercise Science, Chemistry, and a certificate in the Conceptual Foundations of Medicine. Here on campus, I am vice president of Be the Match, fundraising and outreach coordinator for Healthy Hearts, a member of the Pitt Men’s Club Soccer Team, a member of the Exercise Science Organization, and assistant editor of the Pittsburgh Undergraduate Review, an interdisciplinary online research journal for undergraduate research and creative work. Outside of school, I work as an student researcher in the St. Hilaire Lab and volunteer in pulmonary rehabilitation within the Comprehensive Lung Center at Falk Medical Building. In my free time, I enjoy fitness, hiking, watching the Premier League, and reading journal articles related to cardiovascular disease.

My research mentor is Dr. Cynthia St. Hilaire, an assistant professor of medicine within the division of Cardiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The St. Hilaire lab studies cardiovascular calcification, a spectrum of vascular disorders characterized by calcium deposition along arterial vessels or valves in the cardiovascular system. Our group is interested in defining the precise cellular mechanisms that govern how a healthy vascular cell becomes calcific and leverage these insights for novel treatments.

My project studies a disorder called calcific aortic valve disease (CAVD), characterized by hardening of the heart’s aortic valve due to calcification. This disease damages the critical structure regulating the flow of oxygenated blood from the heart to the systemic arteries of the body. Left untreated, CAVD patients have a heightened risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiac events. The standard treatment for CAVD is surgical aortic valve replacement, as no non-surgical solutions exist to halt or reverse valve calcification. Besides the risk of any surgical procedure, bioprosthetic valves are a costly and temporary solution for patients, often requiring reoperation when damaged.

Previously, our lab discovered that the proteins telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) and signal transducer and activator 5 (STAT5) physically bind to induce calcification in valve cells. We hypothesize that the disruption of this binding interaction will reduce calcification in patients with CAVD. However, we lack an efficient and flexible tool to identify live TERT STAT5 binding. The purpose of my project is to design and implement this system. Specifically, the fluorescent reporter protein FAST will be split in two (split-FAST) and fused to TERT and STAT5 separately. When expressed in cells, these re-engineered proteins will bind, reconstituting the FAST reporter and generating a fluorescent signal to detect TERT/STAT5 interaction. This system uses molecular cloning techniques to generate the TERT split-FAST and STAT5 split-FAST constructs by inserting TERT and STAT5 genes into two distinct recipient plasmids, each containing a different half of FAST. Following transfection of the two plasmids into valve cells, this tool will determine the precise subcellular distribution and kinetics of the TERT/STAT5 complex. Additionally, these plasmids can screen for the efficacy of small molecule inhibitors of the TERT/STAT5 interaction, offering a robust system to assess the potential of potential drugs to treat CAVD . The information gleaned from this assay will contribute to our understanding of how a healthy cell becomes calcific, and eventually, to the discovery of new drugs to treat valvular calcification in CAVD.

Following graduation from Pitt, I plan to complete a Master’s degree in Clinical Exercise Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh during my gap year before medical school. This program will provide a strong foundation in exercise physiology and prescription for clinical populations. Moreover, I will apply to MD/PhD programs and pursue a PhD in Health Services Research and Policy to study the interdisciplinary application of social and behavioral strategies in the organization, financing, and delivery of health care. As the leading cause of death in this country, cardiovascular disease interests me greatly, and I am fascinated by how established preventative medicine approaches can be applied at the population level to limit the incidence of chronic heart disease. My ultimate career goal is to become a cardiologist and a role model of health and fitness to my future patients, family, and peers. Ideally, I hope to forge a career that blends my passion for clinical care, research, and preventative medicine, as well as leverage this knowledge to treat patients in the clinic and limit chronic disease within the community in which I practice. The CURF offers an interdisciplinary platform to showcase my research to the undergraduate community as well as the financial support to tackle interesting research questions within the field of cardiology.

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