Matters of the Heart

Master of Biological Sciences alum brings love of the outdoors to "bear" on biomedical research

Master of Biological Sciences graduate Tinen Iles at work in the University of Minnesota's Visible Heart Lab

Tinen Iles has always been a biology buff with a love for the outdoors. Now, this recent Master of Biological Sciences (MBS) program graduate has combined these passions in her work studying hibernating black bears in northern Minnesota.

Iles is part of a team of renowned scientists from the U’s Visible Heart® Laboratory (under the direction of principal investigator Paul Iazzo) and Medtronic that, in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), not only is helping monitor and maintain a healthy bear population, but also is working to decode the many physiological secrets of these remarkable animals.

“Bears really are incredible. They perform amazing feats, especially while hibernating, and there is so much we can learn from them that may help better manage or even cure human diseases,” Iles explains. For example, during their winter hibernation, bears remain in their dens for up to six or seven months, living only off of their stored body fat. They survive this entire time without eating, drinking, passing waste, or doing any physical activity—all without ill effects. Iles’s hope, and that of other scientists like her, is that a better understanding of these complex metabolic processes will enable them to produce new medicines and treatment strategies that address a range of people problems including diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disorders.

Specifically, Iles is studying various blood properties of hibernating bears, including the activating clotting time (how fast the blood clots) at both the beginning and end of hibernation. “What I’m trying to get to is how bears can be inactive all winter without having a thromboembolic event (blood clot) and then figure out if we can replicate the process in humans.” Determining how bears’ blood automatically thins to avoid blood clots during hibernation could benefit people at risk for developing life-threatening clots during surgical procedures or long periods of inactivity, she said.

In addition to her study of Minnesota black bears, Iles works in the Visible Heart Lab beside some of the best and brightest leaders in cardiac research. “We work with physicians, engineers, cardiothoracic surgeons, and other key opinion leaders from all over the world. I’m so fortunate in that I get to do a little bit of everything,” she said. “It just depends on what we’re doing for the day; it’s always a new adventure.”

Much of her current work in the lab involves reanimating swine hearts in efforts to develop and test next-generation medical procedures and devices. The process of reanimation using what is called an isolated four-chamber working heart model enables the researchers to capture internal video images of what occurs inside a beating heart, while also recording various physiological parameters to understand how the heart reacts to a particular procedure or implanted device.

Iles also is part of a research group that has developed a ground-breaking organ transplant care system now undergoing clinical trials. “For both lung and heart transplants, there is a very short window of time the organs remain viable for use. There are so many people on donor waiting lists, and unfortunately, many of these people die before a viable organ becomes available,” Iles explains. “We’re hoping that the organ care system will help expand the donor pool by extending the amount of time these organs can safely remain viable outside the body [beyond the current four- or five-hour parameters] and even enable transplant doctors to rescue and use what today would be considered unusable organs.” Master of Biological Sciences graduate Tinen Iles and principal investigator Dr. Paul Iazzo at work in the University of Minnesota's Visible Heart Lab

Elements of this work will be featured in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE), a peer-reviewed scientific journal that publishes scientific research in a visual format. “[JoVE] sent a crew to film our work… [and it was] all pretty exciting,” she says.

That Iles is now part of such pioneering heart research puts her squarely in a place she has long envisioned for herself. “I realized at a pretty young age that I wanted to work somewhere in the cardiovascular space. When I came to this lab, I knew this [research] is what I wanted to do with my life,” she said.

Her deep-seated interest in all things cardio came about after Iles was diagnosed at age nine with celiac artery compression syndrome, a rare vascular condition. “I was in the hospital for a long time… and had a lot of heart specialists and other doctors at my disposal to ask all sorts of questions. Through all of that, I really became fascinated with the entire cardiovascular system. When I [got out of the hospital] and was still recovering at home, I had a lot of tubing and catheters left over from my treatments… I started playing with them to create my own vascular system to study. My dad, who is a meat cutter, also brought home cow hearts for me to dissect and perfuse with blue and red buffers (liquid) to simulate oxygenated and deoxygenated blood.”

While Iles says she briefly considered medical school, she eventually decided to take her interest in biology and science in another direction—with a few stops along the way, first. “I had been a competitive gymnast as a young girl and I loved to [downhill] ski… but then got sick and really couldn’t do anything until I was 12... I was still a little sick in the fifth grade when I was introduced to the sport of rock climbing, but I fell in love with it right away. It was actually something I could do to be active and outside.”

So after finishing high school, Iles took to the rugged terrain of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where she honed her climbing skills, an activity she says is as much about problem solving as it is physical conditioning. She then moved to Yosemite, California, to work for a summer as a climbing guide. “Then my mom wanted me to come back to Minnesota and go to college… but on my way home, I discovered Big Sky, Montana, and stayed there for the ski season.”

While Iles admits she took the “scenic route,” she went on earn her bachelor’s degree in biology and then spent a few years after that working in the pharmaceutical industry, before returning to school in the MBS program. “And here I am today. I just love what I do; I feel like I get the best of all worlds by working in the lab and with the bears up north,” she said. “It’s really a unique and rewarding experience.”

Having once been a critically ill patient herself, thoughts of the people who may benefit from her research are never far away, Iles continued. “They really are the reason I do what I do. It is incredible to be the first to discover something and be able to add to the body of [scientific] knowledge that could help so many people.”

Want to learn more? Read up on the Master of Biological Studies degree, offered through the College of Continuing Education. Or visit the Visible Heart Laboratory and the Minnesota Black Bear Research Project webpages for information about the research being done by Iles, principal investigator Dr. Paul Iazzo, and other members of the team.