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Graduation stories - working on a cure for heart disease

29 July 2015

For her Honours project, Biomedical Science student Kirsty Lewis worked with the Abertay scientists who hit the headlines last year when they grew miniature beating human hearts to find a cure for heart disease.

As a result of her work on this research, she not only presented at an international student conference, but also had her work published in a scientific journal.

Here she tells us about her time at Abertay, what she found out during her research, and what she plans to do now that she is an accredited biomedical scientist.

Biomedical Science

“I applied to Abertay as the University is one of the few that offers an accredited Biomedical Science degree. This means that the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (IBMS) officially accredits the course, and that the applied course is approved by the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). This is beneficial as you can apply for registration with the HCPC as soon as you gain your biomedical science degree and commence employment as a biomedical scientist within the NHS without requiring further training or education.

“I had also heard great things about the University and city of Dundee from friends and family.”

Clinical placement

“The course was everything I had hoped it would be. In my third year I was thrilled to get the opportunity to go on an 18-week clinical placement within the NHS.

“I was based in the histopathology laboratory at Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy, which is the department which receives tissue specimens from NHS service users for diagnosis.

“During my placement I completed my IBMS registration portfolio, which is necessary for anyone who wants to practice as a biomedical scientist in the NHS.

“Before starting my placement the experience seemed very daunting – especially the large portfolio. However, I had the best experience! The staff members involved in my training were so supportive and shared with me their great wealth of technical skills and knowledge.

“The whole experience confirmed my desire to become a biomedical scientist, and I would highly recommend the placement programme to anyone considering a career in a clinical environment.”

Honours project

“My Honours research project involved investigating a new and exciting method for drug screening using human stem cells, as well as evaluating the therapeutic effect of a novel anti-cancer drug in treating a form of heart disease.

“Currently, pre-clinical drug screening involves the use of animals – however, there are major differences between the physiology of animals and humans, which makes animal models unreliable for testing drugs to be prescribed to humans. There are also ethical issues surrounding the use of animals in drug testing.”

Miniature beating human hearts

“My Honours project involved using human stem cells as an alternative to animals. The stem cells were differentiated into human heart cells and clustered together to form ‘mini-heart’ organs. The mini-hearts even beat just like a human heart. I was then able to induce a form of cardiovascular disease called cardiac hypertrophy into the mini-hearts. This was carried out using growth factors.

“Cardiac hypertrophy causes human heart cells to increase in volume and causes thickening of the ventricles of the heart muscle. This can be life-threatening and is estimated to affect one in 500 people in the UK.

“Currently, no drugs are available to directly target this life-threating disease. However, my Honours project involved testing a new anti-cancer drug developed by the Dundee based biotechnology company Cyclacel as a potential drug candidate to treat cardiac hypertrophy.

“I used the drug to treat the diseased mini-hearts and found that induction of the disease was prevented by the drug. The drug directly targets and blocks the CDK9-pathway, which is a pathway found to be over-activated during the disease process.”


“My supervisor Professor Nikolai Zhelev was a massive inspiration during my time at Abertay. Without him sharing his wealth of skills and knowledge I would not have achieved so many things. Due to his support I was not only able to complete a dissertation which I thoroughly enjoyed, but also to publish my very first scientific paper and attend my first student congress – so I am extremely grateful.”

Published research

“Together with another student - Kerry Falconer - we wrote a review article about the use of stem cells in cardiovascular drug development, which included some of the findings of our research projects. This was accepted for publication by the scientific journal BioDiscovery, which gave a fantastic sense of achievement.”

International Students Congress of Biomedical Science

“While working on my Honours project, my supervisor – Professor Zhelev – also made me aware of something called the International Students Congress of Biomedical Science in the Netherlands.

“I decided to submit an abstract and was delighted when I was accepted and asked to give an oral presentation.

“The congress was a valuable experience which gave me the opportunity to learn about the international research being carried out all over the world.

“Following this, I have been asked to present my research at the Industrial Biotechnology Congress in Birmingham in August 2015.”

Abertay highlights

“After completing my NHS placement I thought the amazing experience would be hard to beat, but my Honours year was definitely the best part of my time at Abertay.

“The sense of achievement you gain after handing in your final dissertation, completing your final exams and receiving your award certificate on graduation day alongside your friends and family is phenomenal!”

Come to Abertay!

“To any prospective students thinking about applying to Abertay I would say, go for it! I have had an incredible four years at Abertay and would do it all over again if I could.

“The lecturers, especially in the School of Science, Engineering and Technology, are so supportive and really passionate towards their areas of expertise. They are also very approachable and focused on seeing their students do well.

“Dundee is also a great city which seems to be up-and-coming and getting better and better.”

Next steps

“I am over the moon to have been offered a job as a biomedical scientist at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, which is what I hoped to achieve once I graduated.

“I would not have achieved this outcome without the support of my friends and family, and of course without the invaluable support and guidance of the staff at Abertay.

“In the future I hope to go on and do some form of further study, such as a Master’s degree, however right now I feel ready to enter to world of work!”

Congratulations to Kirsty on her success – we wish her all the best in her new job and with her future career.

To find out more about our Biomedical Science degree, please visit our course pages.

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