Biology professor, students research muscular dystrophy on mice


Debra Murray, Digital News Editor

Studying things like axolotls to lasers to muscular dystrophy in mice might sound foreign to most, but to some students working in Snell and Kelly Thompson Hall, it’s a daily occurrence.

Teaching how to study such complex topics and issues to students has been something Dr. Cristi Galindo has spent her educational career perfecting. An associate professor in the biology department, Galindo has spent nearly 10 years studying muscular dystrophy, which is a group of genetic diseases that cause progressive weakness and less muscle mass. 

Galindo has a passion for medical biology, which led her to study muscular dystrophy, she said.

Muscular dystrophy is caused by genetic mutations that interfere with the production of muscle proteins that are needed to build and maintain healthy muscles. The causes are genetic. A family history of muscular dystrophy will increase the chance of it affecting an individual.

The X-chromosome containing the normal dystrophin gene may become inactivated in cardiac muscle to a greater degree than in skeletal muscle.

Both the Duchenne and Becker forms of muscular dystrophy are associated with a heart condition called cardiomyopathy. This form of heart disease weakens the cardiac muscle, preventing the heart from pumping blood efficiently.

“It’s rare for females to get it,” Galindo said. “It’s almost entirely boys and about one in every 3500 to 5000 male live births have muscular dystrophy.”

Whenever Galindo gives a talk about her research, she said she uses a hypothetical two boys with muscular dystrophy: one was diagnosed when he was seven, spent most of his life in a wheelchair, and uses ACE inhibitors. He is 30 years old right now. The other boy was diagnosed when he was six, developed a heart problem by eight, and suffered a heart attack.

“In boys with muscular dystrophy, because they have steroid treatments now, they can have ventilation support, feeding tube support, they live longer, and now they actually have involvement at heart,” Galindo said.

Galindo’s research is focusing on answering a series of questions: Why is the heart relatively preserved? How do we know which boys are going to get heart disease or not? 

The research still has progress to be made, Galindo said.

“It’s a continually altering process,” Galindo said. “Every time you learn something new you have new questions to go with it.”

In her previous research at Vanderbilt University, Galindo worked with golden retrievers to compare Ribonucleic acid (RNA), a molecule essential in various biological roles in coding, decoding, regulation and expression of genes.

“We did gene expression analysis looking at the actual RNA messenger to compare skeletal muscle, and heart from dogs with muscular dystrophy,” Galindo said. 

In the lab at WKU, she works with mice. One group of mice with the BDNF gene, one group of mice with human BDNF and completely normal mice are in the lab. 

Galindo works with students and volunteers while researching so they can develop research experience.

Lauren Gansereit, senior at University of Tennessee at Martin, said the research experience is similar to a doctorate program, but in a shorter time frame.

Kara Marion is a WKU sophomore who started volunteering in the lab in May. She said she started working in the lab early so she can be involved in the research for a majority of her time at WKU and learn as many skills as she can.

“I want to work with kids and learning about muscular dystrophy is common with little boys so it aligns with that,” Marion said.

“We’re comparing how the mutated mouse gene versus the mutated human gene versus normal mice looks on their skeletal muscles, ” Gansereit  said. “So we’re comparing slow twitch, twitch and fast twitch muscles.”

Galindo and her team use the different mice for comparison to seek how muscular dystrophy impacts the heart.

“That’s the whole reason why we’re doing this experiment is because we could use this and see how BDNF affects the muscles, and also affects the heart,” Jefferey Kristensen, WKU senior said.

Digital News Editor Debra Murray can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @debramurrayy