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magazine home > archives > fall 2001 > features

Cardiac diseases ranging from hypertension to congestive heart failure afflict millions of Americans each year. Research being conducted on the U of M campus is helping scientists develop better medications to combat these diseases.

At the Heart of the Matter
by Greg Russell

Dr. Semahat Demir
Dr. Semahat Demir

A little bit of intrigue has gone a long way in pushing The University of Memphis to the forefront of research that is for the faint of heart.

Biomedical engineering associate professor Semahat Demir was settled into a lucrative career as a research engineer training doctors and staff how to use medical devices when an interest surfaced from deep within.

"I also wanted to understand what is happening in the human body," says Dr. Demir. "I had seen the clinical aspect, but I also wanted to see the other side."

So Demir returned to school in her native Turkey and later in the United States to study basic science. Now she is recognized internationally for her research that ultimately leads to better drug treatments for cardiac diseases, and for her computational biomedical engineering research, which has drawn interest from all over the world.

Demir provides physiology, biophysics and neuroscience research labs and ultimately pharmacologists with a better understanding of the effects disease, aging and gender have on cardiac cells. This allows them to develop better drug treatments to combat congestive heart- failure, hypertension, hormonal changes and other heart related problems.

Demir doesn't haggle with experiments requiring lab animals or test tubes. She uses a non-conventional research method that provides accurate results. Using equations put into a computer, she simulates cardiac cells that might be found in the human body by building a virtual cell model. By changing the variables and parameters of the equations, Demir is able to "experiment" on the virtual cell through the computer. She uses different test data from labs all over the world to manipulate the cell model to see how aging, gender differences and diseases may affect it.

"Labs can guide their research with the predictions the model makes," says Demir. "They can design new protocols for their animal experiments or predict results with the model and maybe not have to do the experiment.

"Using results from the computational cell model is less expensive than doing animal testing much of the time," she adds.

Demir's research is termed computational bioengineering - she emphasizes mathematical modeling and computer simulations. Specifically, Demir studies the bioelectric activity of ion channels that are part of a mammalian cell. Ion channels are pores in the membrane of a cell wall that elicit electrical activity. By studying this bioelectric activity under normal and disease conditions, Demir can provide a better overall understanding of a cell's physiological function. And new drugs can be designed to combat cardiac diseases because of the research. The gap between the research in a cell's physiological function and in genetics will soon be bridged, notes the associate professor.

Demir works in the Joint Program in Biomedical Engineering shared by The U of M and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center-Memphis. "What I do is very interdisciplinary," she says. "UT has the medical aspect and we have the engineering program. This brings together the strengths of two universities." Demir worked on the UT campus for four years before transferring to The U of M a year ago.

Those using Demir's research are recognized as heavy-hitters in the medical world. Labs in medical schools and in physiology and biophysics departments at Texas Tech, the University of Calgary in Canada, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard and Rice University are among those relying on her research.

A major thrust of her program includes developing interactive software for use on the Internet. Labs, educators or students anywhere in the world can visit her "iCell" interactive cell modeling Web site to learn the latest information on cardiac cell function as it relates to bioelectric activity.

Demir says that education is another important aspect of her work. "The biomedical program here is growing, and we are trying to get more students - they are the future researchers who will carry on this work."

Demir holds a bachelor of science degree in electronics and telecommunications engineering from Istanbul Technical University (ITU) and a master's of science in biomedical engineering from Bosphorus University in Turkey. At ITU, she was mentored by her father in clinical and basic science. She also holds a second master's of science and a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from Rice University, and a post-doctoral fellow certificate in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University.

Demir has secured grants from the Whitaker Foundation, the Turkish National Foundation and the American Heart Association. She plans to continue building her lab to expand her research to further educate students.

"I am very proud of The University of Memphis," says Demir. "The environment here is very encouraging and very nurturing. This research is known around the world, and it reflects well on our school."

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