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The implications of myocyte electrical dysregulation: Dr. Fadi G. Akar

June 15, 2022
by Serena Thaw-Poon

When Fadi G. Akar, PhD, was growing up in Beirut in the 1980s, he contemplated becoming either a doctor or an engineer. Having a strong affinity for physics and math, he opted for the latter. While pursuing his electrical engineering degree, Akar quickly realized that he was far more interested in the theoretical aspects of the discipline rather than its mainstream applications. This prompted him to look elsewhere for those applications, particularly to bioelectricity. After completing his undergraduate studies, Akar decided to pursue a Master of Science in biomedical engineering intending to transition to a career in biotechnology.

At Case Western Reserve University, Akar met David Rosenbaum, MD, who ultimately became his long-time mentor, role model and friend. As an engineer-turned-cardiologist, Rosenbaum was passionate about the importance of applying quantitative sciences and technologies to address clinical problems. He stressed the role of engineering not only in terms of designing biomedical devices but also for understanding basic mechanisms. This was especially true in the field of arrhythmias, which Akar became fascinated with. By the time he completed his master’s degree studying how high energy shocks interacted with cardiac tissue, Akar was no longer interested in an industry position but rather was focused on a life-long career as a basic cardiac electrophysiologist. He enrolled in the PhD program, also in the Rosenbaum lab, where he studied the role of electrical heterogeneity in the pathogenesis of cardiac arrhythmias. The significance of this work to Akar took on added meaning when, around the time, his mother suffered a stroke due to atrial fibrillation.

With his interest in Cardiac Electrophysiology cemented, Akar moved to Baltimore where he delved into the molecular and biochemical mechanisms underlying ion channel dysfunction. He subsequently moved to Mount Sinai and ultimately to Yale. Over the years, his research has evolved to encompass the study of both genetic and acquired causes of arrhythmias. His work aims to broaden the framework through which sudden cardiac death is studied. Though myocytes act as the main drivers of arrhythmias, the interaction between a multiplicity of cells in the heart ultimately impacts myocyte electrical dysregulation and therefore arrhythmias.

Akar never loses sight of what his research means.

“The research that we do has real implications. It does not take much to convince yourself or anyone else for that matter that the work that we’re doing in the lab every day is highly impactful,” he remarks. The emphasis he places on clinically oriented research was an important factor when deciding to come to Yale where he saw multiple opportunities for synergistic interactions with his colleagues at the Yale Cardiovascular Research Center, the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and the Section of Cardiovascular Medicine. Since arriving at Yale, Akar has found many like-minded collaborators. Together, they are establishing pipelines that bring basic discovery at the bench to pre-clinical and clinical applications.

In addition to diligent work as a scientist, Akar is a passionate soccer fan of the English Premiere League club Arsenal and serves as coach to a local youth club. Inspired by Rosenbaum, Akar is also a highly involved mentor who believes that a cookie-cutter approach to mentorship is doomed to fail. Akar strives to cultivate a positive and collaborative atmosphere for his mentees and stresses the value of maintaining camaraderie. Currently, the Akar lab includes five members: Marine Cacheux, PhD, Michael Rudokas PhD, George Hung, MD, Afia Sarpong Frimpong, and Ilhan Gokhan.

Cacheux is an associate research scientist whose research has been focused on investigating the mechanisms underlying cardiac and skeletal muscle physiology and pathophysiology. Her current research is focused on understanding the structural and arrhythmic mechanisms underlying the development of heart failure and sudden cardiac death in the context of a multitude of acquired and inherited conditions.

Rudokas is a postdoctoral associate who is investigating the association between metabolic dysregulation and cardiac arrhythmias and loves to sail.

Hung is a cardiology clinical and research fellow who is investigating the mechanisms that link inflammation to atrial fibrillation (AF) and arrhythmogenesis and volunteered as an EMT prior to medical school.

Frimpong is an American Heart Association Undergraduate Research Fellow developing an in vitro model system with the use of human inducible pluripotent stem cell-derived myocytes enriched for an atrial lineage, and can speak three Ghanaian languages: Twi, Ewe and Ga.

Gokhan is a fourth-year MD-PhD student in biomedical engineering and classical pianist, working in the Campbell lab in collaboration with Akar on arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy and atrial fibrillation.

To his mentees and anyone else looking to pursue a career in academic medicine, Akar advises to, “Find pride and joy in the work you do. That’s what makes it fulfilling.”

Submitted by Elisabeth Reitman on June 15, 2022