Embracing nanotechnology is just one sign of the way Kontaridis is working to expand the scope of the lab’s research, in terms of research types and subjects, and the number of scientists.
“I’m trying to create not just a lab, but an academic institution,” she said.
She envisions researchers from different fields working collaboratively, building on each other’s research, taking the risks necessary for good science, being open about the work they do and making the lab world-renowned again, she said.
“Right now, the new approach here is really therapeutics and the development of new drugs,” Kontaridis said. “So we’re mostly trying to figure out mechanisms of disease; why people get certain ailments.”
Once researchers know that, they can model the mechanisms and figure out treatments to reverse them, she said.
Dr. Michael Kelberman, a cardiologist with Central New York Cardiology in Utica who was re-recruited to the lab’s local advisory board, is enthusiastic about Kontaridis and the changes taking place under her leadership.
“The Masonic community has put a tremendous amount of resources behind the lab and re-establishment of it as a premier lab in the country,” he said. “And Dr. Kontaridis is absolutely terrific … She’s extremely well trained and bright. She’s recruiting many very talented researchers. … And she has great vision.”
All the changes, Kelberman said, have sold him “on the idea that the lab’s best days are ahead of it.”
Kontaridis wasn’t impressed with the lab when she visited before taking the job. The equipment was outdated, she said. And the rooms were small and dark, not conducive to the “collaborative, inviting environment” she envisioned.
“I like to fondly call walking through here (as) Radio Shack circa 1965,” she said.
But the board invited her to look not at what was there but at the possibilities.
“I think that’s where I was sold,” Kontaridis recalled.
There are many factors involved in creating the lab of her vision, some she began working on this year and some of which will wait for the future.
SCOPE OF RESEARCH
For decades, the lab has focused primarily on cardiac electrophysiology, the heart’s rhythms and arrhythmias. But Kontaridis is broadening that focus to include more cardiovascular issues as well as related conditions, including cardiac development, cardiomyopathies, heart failure, obesity, inflammation and metabolism.
And the goal is to eventually include neurodegenerative disease, autism, autoimmune diseases, gastric disease and cancer, she said.
She sees a lot of synergy between these fields of study. Just consider autism, which, when severe, often is accompanied by developmental defects of the heart, Kontaridis said. So if the same mechanism causes both the autistic behavior and the defect, the same treatments might help both, she said.
Kelberman, president of The Kelberman Center, which serves individuals with autism, spoke particularly highly of this new focus and the possibility of collaboration between the center and the lab.
TYPES OF RESEARCH
The lab is moving into new fields or expanding old ones. For example, the lab already was doing research into the genetic causes of electrophysiology. Now researchers are using inducible pluripotent stem cells and CRISPR, the gene-editing technology that recently drew global criticism after a researcher in China used it to genetically modify twin babies.
But Kontaridis quickly pointed out that her lab has no intention of crossing ethical lines.
“We’re using IPSCs and CRISPR to model various types of disease in a dish so we can understand how the disease actually transpires and find mechanisms by which we can use novel therapies to treat,” she explained.
After former Executive Director Charles Anzelevitch, who worked at the lab for more than 30 years, was forced out by the lab’s board in late 2015, the lab shrank as scientists left. When Kontaridis started, the lab had a staff of 10 administrators and 12 scientists, three of whom have since left.
So, Kontaridis started recruiting, bringing 17 more researchers on board — and two administrators — with two more scientists starting in the New Year.
Jason McCarthy, associate professor of cardiovascular medicine and scientific operations manager, whom Kontaridis recruited from her former employer, Harvard University, described her methodology in putting together the staff: “Each of us is a different tool. Together, the sky is the limit.”
Kontaridis used her own analogy: The lab is like a shopping mall in which each senior researcher runs a different kind of store, but they all have to operate together.
RENOVATIONS AND EXPANSION
That circa 1965 “Radio Shack” equipment has been replaced or is being replaced with state-of-the-art technology that already has upgraded the lab’s National Institutes of Health scores for environment from a five or six to a one (the highest) or two. That equipment includes a tiny echocardiogram machine, micro CT scanner and imaging system to trace nanoparticles, all sized for mice.
The second and third floors have been renovated to open up lab space for six or eight teams headed up by a research scientist doing cardiovascular research. The third floor also holds a small animal vivarium to make sure that the rats and mice used in research are cared for and all research on them is conducted in accordance with NIH guidelines, Kontaridis said.
The next phase of updates calls for a basement renovation to include at least four more research teams and room for pigs and rabbits. Research will progress from rodents to pigs — the animals with the most human-like heart — to clinical trials in people, Kontaridis said.
Eventually, Kontaridis plans for the lab to expand so it can incorporate new areas of research. But that’s in the 10-year-plus plan, she said.
The lab also continues to run a summer fellowship program for college students. But Kontaridis wants to see more partnerships with colleges, both locally and farther afield in New York, having faculty become affiliated for collaboration and networking, and letting students spend time at the lab, she said. Hamilton College and SUNY Polytechnic Institute already have sent students to the lab.
Plans call for Masonic to have dedicated lab space within the planned downtown Mohawk Valley Health System hospital. The plan predates Kontaridis, but she’s fully on board.
“I think it’s an amazing opportunity for us to create a research academic center. Having the hospital there will allow us to have more translational research,” Kontaridis said.
Putting the lab near the operating rooms will increase the existing flow of medical waste to research labs, she said.
Her vision of the future includes a downtown research-based, academic center, not just a community hospital, with medical students, clinician fellowships and businesses growing out of the bustle, she said.
“I like to think about Utica as Pittsburgh 20 years ago. … What transformed that city was the building of an academic research hospital,” Kontaridis said.