15 Good Minutes: Hee Cheol Cho

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Issues surrounding cardiovascular health and disease are personal for Dr. Hee Cheol Cho. Dr. Cho lost his father to a heart attack, and his father lost his siblings to heart attacks. “The topic of cardiovascular disease is embedded in my family and blood,” Dr. Cho said.

Hee Cheol Cho, Ph.D. is a stem cell and cardiology researcher, Urowsky-Sahr Scholar in Pediatric Bioengineering, and Associate Professor at the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Pediatrics at Emory and Georgia Tech. Dr. Cho’s research focuses on cardiac pacemaker cells and developing a gene-and cell-based treatment for cardiac arrhythmia. His “biological pacemaker” is a minimally invasive alternative treatment for cardiac arrhythmia.

Hee Cheol Cho, Ph.D.

Hee Cheol Cho, Ph.D.

Cardiac arrhythmia refers to irregular heartbeats that can cause fatigue and, in more severe cases, unconsciousness. To correct the heartbeats, an electrical pacemaker is often implanted. This implanting of electric pacemakers is not considered suitable for pediatric patients, and it is an invasive procedure. There are also several drawbacks of the device, including battery replacement, dislodging of the lead wire, and risk of infection. Dr. Cho and his research team have developed a device-free pacemaker, using a small molecule to convert heart muscle cells to pacemaker cells to restore natural heart rhythm.

Dr. Cho’s research also addresses myocardial infarction. Myocardial infarction, commonly known as a heart attack, is an abrupt blockage of the heart vessel that supplies the blood to the heart.  When the circulation is cut off, then the heart vessel will begin to die within hours. The heart cannot regenerate itself, and once the muscle begins to die it will be replaced with fibrotic tissue that leaves a big scar.

In the lab, Dr. Cho and his team pursue knowledge and understanding of how stem cells arrive at heart muscle cells and what kind of growth factors we can add or subtract so that we get the heart muscle cells that we want to replace the damaged muscles.

“We are at the point where we can reasonably specify which road the stem cells will take to become either atrial or ventricular heart muscle cells. In our latest discovery, we found a way to make these stem cells become left or right ventricular cells and that’s important because when the myocardial infraction happens and the damage is in the left ventricle, then we want to implant in the left ventricle. We have arrived at a point where we can specify this.”

Beyond his personal connection, Dr. Cho has many other inspirations and influences for entering this line of work. “My parents and my family have been the initial influencer of my career, but the proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ applies to me as well,” Dr. Cho said.  “In the early years of my training, my Ph.D. supervisor and post-doctoral mentor all have given me such excellent training and mentorship to form me as a scientist. Now that we have this research team, my young and talented, and seasoned scientists all influence me. Their dedication, work, and their exciting discoveries are all humbling to me and give me such great satisfaction as they grow. These past few years I have also developed relationships with patients and their families. When I speak and communicate with young people with cardiac pacemakers and want to play sports again and see how our research gives them hope, it is a motivation to me and my career.

As Dr. Cho described his work, he had a few words of advice for aspiring scientists and his past self: “If I could rewind 20 years from today, then I think I would tell myself to ‘be the best version of yourself.'”