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UWRF professor uses zebra fish to test human heart failure

November 10, 2010

UW-River Falls Assistant Professor Cheng-Chen Huang was awarded a $40,000 grant in early October from the WiSys Technology Foundation to continue his research on heart failure.

By applying aristolochic acid to zebra fish embryos, Huang said he has been able to induce heart failure in them similar to that in humans. Huang then tests 30-40 chemical compounds on fish that might eliminate or reduce their heart failure.

Huang said that he is excited because the research could discover drugs beneficial to human heart disease.

“In general, research is always exciting, because we are designing experiments to find answers to our questions,” Huang said. “Any discovery is exciting to me.”

Huang said that, while right now he does not know whether his compounds could be applied to humans or not, in the future he could begin to test a more complex animal like a mouse.  For now, the zebra fish offers a less expensive, faster way to test compounds. Since the zebra fish develop so quickly, the entire experiment from hatching the zebra fish, testing the compounds and collecting results can happen within one week.

Huang said the project has great potential because of the similarities they have found between the hearts of zebra fish and humans. Huang has gathered enough results to begin applying for extramural grants from the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health.

Huang earned his doctorate degree in 2001 from Rutgers University in New Jersey and began as assistant professor at UWRF in 2008.  Huang decided to come to UWRF because he liked the ratio of research to teaching that UWRF required.

Originally from Taiwan, Huang is taking students there to study abroad over J-term.  Johnathan Emahiser is one of the students that will be accompanying him.

A biology major and chemistry minor, Emahiser is one of the students doing undergraduate research with Huang. Emahiser said his duties have included feeding the fish, cleaning the tanks, conducting experiments and interpreting the data since he started working with Huang last December.

“What I’ve learned in some of my classes really pales in comparison to the hands-on experience I’ve had in the lab,” Emahiser said.

“I like being immersed in a problem, and I like actively searching for an answer,” he added. “I would love to see that my work becomes something that could help people against one of the leading causes of death in the United States.”

Huang said he enjoys involving undergraduates in his research.

“Watching them learning and making discoveries is exciting and something I didn’t know I enjoyed before I came to this job, Huang said.

Huang encourages undergraduates to participate in research.  If they are interested, they should not be afraid to get started even if they begin gaining experience by simply cleaning the lab.

“You have to put your heart into the project,” Huang said. “The critical part will be if you are ready or not mentally.”

When working with undergraduate researchers, Huang said he learned that faculty have to watch closely, be understanding and give detailed instructions. The students should be careful but not afraid of making mistakes.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Huang said. “Including me.”