The Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation recognizes Robert Gourdie, a professor at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, for his research on connexins – the channels that enable direct communication between cells.
Gourdie, who directs the Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine at the research institute, examines how these cellular channels of communication are involved in injury severity following heart attack, stroke, and traumatic brain injury, and how they ultimately influence the subsequent healing process. He also serves as the Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund Eminent Scholar in Heart Regenerative Medicine Research.
Gourdie and his research team were focused on cardiac connections, and how electricity flows through the heart, when they fortuitously stumbled upon the answer for a treatment for healing skin wounds.
Their study of the protein Connexin 43 allowed the team to develop an inhibitory peptide, called aCT1. They found that aCT1 also halved the healing time of venous leg ulcers and diabetic foot ulcers in a stage three clinical trial. Stemming from this breakthrough, Gourdie is now studying how to prevent excessive scarring in breast cancer survivors undergoing breast reconstruction following mastectomy.
The aCT1 peptide has also proved useful in Gourdie’s more recent research – the involvement of connexins in the development of drug resistance by glioblastoma brain cancer patients being treated by anti-cancer drugs. Compared with healthy brain cells, human glioblastoma cells have six to 14 times the amount of the Connexin 43 protein. The higher the Connexin 43 levels, the quicker cancer cells become resistant to anti-cancer drug temozolomide.
Gourdie and his research team use aCT1 to inhibit Connexin 43, limiting over activity in damaged tissue. This allows the tissue to heal more quickly with lower amounts of inflammation and scarring. When the peptide was administered to surgically obtained human glioblastoma cells through a combination treatment with temozolomide, the cells began to respond to the anti-cancer drug again. The combination treatment caused a striking recovery in sensitivity, but the mechanism by which aCT1 and temozolomide induce sensitization remains a mystery. Additional rigorous research still needs to be conducted, Gourdie said
Gourdie’s current research includes:
Connexins in cardiac electrical excitation spread
Drug discovery, which includes development and testing of new compounds targeting connexin channels for use in diseases of the heart
Brain wound healing
The involvement of connexins in the development of drug resistance by glioblastoma brain cancer patients being treated by anti-cancer drugs
Gourdie is also a professor at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, a professor of emergency medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, and the director of Emergency Medicine Research at Carilion Clinic. He received his master’s degree in cellular and molecular biology from the University of Auckland, and his Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Canterbury.