ReSource, Volume 13, 2001 Page: 20
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he ability of a human embryo to survive
and thrive depends in large measure on
healthy heart development. Many
researchers suspect that heart defects in the
early stages of human development may be
a major cause of fetal deaths.
Biologist Warren Burggren, Ph.D., dean of
the College of Arts and Sciences at the Uni-
versity of North Texas, is on a quest to learn
more about how the heart develops before
birth. By studying animal embryos with
hearts similar to those of humans before
birth, he hopes ultimately to help correct
human heart defects.
"I decided to pursue prenatal cardiac
research because of my interest in the
beginnings of life," says Burggren.
"The fact that a fragile egg, housing an
embryo, will grow into a fully developed
animal fascinates me," he adds.
Animal embryos shed light on
human heart development
by Cathy Cashio
With funding from the
National Science Founda-
tion, Burggren seeks to
understand and find ways to
discourage anomalies that
would prevent a fetus from
growing into a fully devel-
oped, healthy human being.
He uses the scientific
approach created by the
19th-century Danish animal
physiologist August Krogh,
who assumed that there is a
specific animal most suited
to determine an answer to
the eggs of emus
similar to human
their early stages
every human physiological problem. Simply
put, the observation of animals reveals valu-
able information about human anatomy and
According to Burggren, life is like a color-
ful quilt. Fish, reptiles and mammals are
conceived from the same thread, but fetal
development eventually weaves humans and
animals in different directions.
"It's this thread, running through our
lives, that's similar to the rest of the animal
kingdom that intrigues me," says Burggren.
Burggren envisions an embryo as life
waiting to burst forth and develop, "like a
rocket being propelled from a launch pad."
He notes that any number of things may
happen to the rocket. It may function well
and reach its destination, or it may malfunc-
tion and change course. Understanding why
"course changes" occur in developing
fetuses and how corrections are made may
ultimately reduce infant mortality.
Burggren says many variables may alter
the way a heart develops. These include
environmental factors, such as oxygen and
acidity levels and temperature. In addition,
he says maternal experiences - such as the
quality of nutrition or the amount of expo-
sure to toxins, alcohol and other chemical
substances - may have an effect. Studies
show that genetic factors also play a part.
To learn how the fetal heart operates,
Burggren conducts his research in three lab-
oratories - an aquarium room, an incuba-
tion room and an experimental lab area.
Each has a distinct function.
The 40 aquariums lining the walls of the
aquarium room serve as a gymnasium of
sorts for zebra fish. The hearts of these fish
are similar to the human heart in an early
stage of development.
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University of North Texas. ReSource, Volume 13, 2001, periodical, 2001; Denton, Texas. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc29774/m1/20/: accessed April 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting University Relations, Communications & Marketing department for UNT.