AHA Moment: Lejeune Awarded Funding for Heart Cell Data Work

By Patrick L. Kennedy

With a promising technology aimed at combating heart disease, Assistant Professor Emma Lejeune (ME) has earned the American Heart Association (AHA) Career Development Award. Lejeune’s software and computational methods have the potential to empower future researchers to develop medicine and artificial tissue that will cure cases of cardiac disease—the leading cause of death the world over.

Emma Lejeune (ME)

“We’re developing open-source software for analyzing images and movies of heart cells,” says Lejeune, whose career goal is to lead the field in computational discovery for cardiovascular research. “It’s a technology that could enable all sorts of other technologies that have real applications, and it’s very cool that the American Heart Association is funding that process.”

Lejeune’s “Sarc-Graph” software platform will be useful to researchers working with lab-grown heart cells that are derived safely from human patients—for example, sampled from the blood or the skin. “They can take cells from humans in a very noninvasive manner, take them to the lab, reprogram them into stem cells, and then differentiate them into cardiomyocytes, which are heart muscle cells,” Lejeune explains.

These engineered cells (known as hiPSC-CMs) can be used to create artificial heart tissue or to test new drugs. But they turn out to have irregular internal structures, making them difficult to analyze. That’s where Lejeune’s work comes in. “The initial step is not artificial intelligence” she says. “This work is mainly computational methods that are a step before it’d be appropriate to apply AI.”

The program that Lejeune and colleagues in her lab have developed, and that they hope to improve with the AHA funding, analyzes video of hiPSC-CMs beating. The Sarc-Graph software makes it possible to quantify properties such as the amount and direction of beating cell contraction, Lejeune explains, or variation in behavior across different parts of the cell (see example below).

“The software will allow you to process movies to subsequently make comparisons between different cells or interface with a machine learning algorithm and get results that are interpretable,” Lejeune says. “Interpretable from both a scientific perspective and a high-stakes applications perspective,” in the sense that decisions about patient care could be based on the output of the software.

“One of the big questions is: Are the things you observe in these cells ultimately relevant to the way things actually behave in the body?” says Lejeune. For example, some drugs that treat other diseases, such as cancer, can cause the heart to stop beating in a regular rhythm. “So can we observe something in these [hiPSC-CM] cells that will predict the heart’s behavior in the body? And really, the software we’re working on would enable that kind of discovery.”

Lejeune’s colleagues in the study that formed the basis for her AHA Career Development research were Professor Christopher Chen (BME, MSE), ME MS student Bill Zhao, and then-PhD student Kehan Zhang (’20), now a postdoc at MIT. “We’re able to bring together expertise in computational modeling and biomedical engineering,” says Lejeune. “We wouldn’t have been able to do the work we’ve done without access to the research community at BU, and now this [AHA] funding will help us develop this open source software to the benefit of the broader research community.”