UC Merced doctoral student puts heart into research

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comDecember 12, 2011 

Jesus Luna's aspirations to develop a device that will help curb the number of people suffering from heart disease isn't merely a career goal -- it's deeply personal.

Case in point: He's lost both of his grandmothers, one in 1999 and the other in 2001, to heart disease.

The 29-year-old UC Merced doctoral student is one of many researchers on the front line in a battle against heart disease, which remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States.

"There's a lot of things that we have to do right now so in the near future we can help all the people suffering from this disease," he said.

Luna, a biological engineering and small-scale technologies major, is on the right track to achieve his ambitions.

Repairing damage

Luna is working on a research project that combines engineering and biology to develop devices that help repair damaged heart tissue after a heart attack. "I'm trying to incorporate both sides to develop a cardiac patch," he said.

A cardiac patch would be similar to a Band-Aid that would be placed on the heart through a surgical procedure to repair the damaged tissue on the heart.

Luna is using a very economical material, Shrinky Dinks -- a once popular children's toy comprised of clear sheets of thermoplastic polystyrene -- to guide mouse stem cells to align to replicate cardiac tissue in a cardiac patch.

Luna, who says there aren't many effective treatments now for people who suffer from heart attacks, plans to use human stem cells for his research. He eventually wants to open his own biotech company to develop products and devices to help improve health overall.

Luna said the research he's conducting is important for his future goals because it's being done at a low cost. "The engineering part of the research is very inexpensive," he said. "We can pretty much fabricate lots of chips with only $1."

Companies spend up to millions of dollars for the same kind of work, Luna said.

Immigrant's path

Luna has come far, considering he's only been in the United States a few years. He moved to Stockton in 2002 from a small town, Juchiplia in the state of Zacatecas in Central Mexico.

After moving to Stockton, he enrolled at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton through a migrant education program. His parents used to work in the farm fields and he was the first in his family attend a four-year college. Today, two of his younger brothers are following his footsteps and are attending college to earn degrees related to the medical field.

Luna began his graduate research work at UC Mer- ced with Professor Michelle Khine, but now he's working under the guidance of Kara McCloskey, an engineering professor. Khine now teaches at UC Irvine. He earned his bachelor's degree in biological sciences in 2008 after transferring from the University of the Pacific in 2006.

He is expected to earn his doctoral degree in 2013.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209)385-2482, or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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