When you hear about channels, you may first think about manmade water routes that boats travel through. Or road tunnels allowing people to travel quite fast across a rugged landscape. Or even TV or radio stations. In the big picture, you got it right. Channels link places, but also convey information. Yet many of us are unaware of the crucial channels that exist within our own bodies, which are part of an intricate network of exceptional molecular processes. They essentially allow ions to be transferred in and out of our cells – something that is crucial to maintain the healthy state of our organs. When they malfunction repetitively for some reason, we have a channelopathy, a disease putting us in substantial amounts of trouble, e.g. seizures, epilepsy, fibromyalgia or cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats).

So, let’s use our scientific goggles and travel to the core of my work, which is dealing with heart channels. For me, a channel is a molecular structure containing a complex arrangement of proteins that control the ions released in and out of, so-called cardiomyocytes cells. A rather different view than channels with boats or cars by the way. Primarily, the heart tissue is composed of two main types of cells, the contractile cells and the pacemakers. The latter accounts for only 1% of the muscular tissue and although this 1% seems meager, the pacemakers’ action provokes a synchronized contraction of the heart – the heartbeat – while controlling the opening of several “voltage-gated” ion channels. Each channel is specific to one ion, potassium, sodium and calcium, and 5 phases are involved to complete the polarization of our cells. In my case, I study closely the transport of potassium by a protein called Kv7.1, which is crucial in keeping a steady heartbeat rhythm. To do so, I use molecular dynamics to pave the understanding of the activation mechanisms of such a channel. It is noteworthy to highlight that my findings accompany preclinical studies executed by electrophysiology researchers. Why? To shed light into possible therapeutic treatments for patients suffering from deregulated heartbeats or even other kinds of channelopathies.

The number one reason why I began my PhD was because I figured after my master’s that I knew just too little. And as I wish to become a computational drug designer, molecular dynamics is a must-know skill. I definitely enjoy my field and I’ve been learning tons – not only about the complexity of the potassium channel, but also about soft skills such as self-motivation, confidence, communication and problem solving.

Be gentle to your heart channels by getting enough potassium. Sweet potatoes or bananas are great sources of it! I am Audrey Deyawe Kongmeneck, a PhD student working at the SRSMC lab at the University of Lorraine.

Text by Fernanda Haffner

Illustration by Laurene Gattuso