MSU undergrad takes cardiovascular research to heart

Author: Vanessa Beeson

Female student working int he laboratory

Kellie Mitchell working in the laboratory (Photo by Russ Houston)

Kellie Mitchell, a Mississippi State biochemistry major, is conducting research she hopes will one day help save lives.

By studying the heart cells of swine with metabolic syndrome, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences student is working to unlock clues to help detect heart disease in humans.

When the Chelsea, Alabama, native's grandfather recently survived a stroke, the health scare gave Mitchell a renewed sense of purpose and urgency for finding answers.

"After my grandfather had a stroke, the research became more personal. It's the difference between seeing statistics and hearing stories, and actually having a face and a name to put with this disease and what it causes," she said.

Mississippians are urged to become more aware of heart disease during February's American Heart Month, however, many may not realize there is a significant correlation between heart disease and type 2 diabetes. More than 275,000 Mississippians have type 2 diabetes, which often leads to some form of heart disease or stroke. Metabolic syndrome, a precursor to type 2 diabetes, is the subject of Mitchell's research.

"Basically, we hope our research will contribute to a blood test for cardiovascular disease one day. Right now, people usually don't know they have cardiovascular disease until they have a heart attack, stroke or some other life-threatening event," Mitchell said. "If researchers can develop a blood test before that happens, we could potentially help save millions of lives."

Mitchell is part of the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, an immersive experience designed to engage undergraduate scholars in research and creative activities beyond the traditional undergraduate curriculum. In this 12-month experience, undergraduate students work as a junior colleague within a faculty scholar/mentor's research program to discover new knowledge, enhance their discipline-specific expertise and gain critical thinking skills.

Funded through the university's Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, 40 College of Agriculture and Life Sciences undergraduate students are currently participating in the program.

The heart disease research project received additional funding from MSU's Office of Research and Economic Development and through a special research initiative funded by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.

Mitchell's research specifically examines exosomes in healthy and unhealthy cells. She is working under the direction of Yuhua Farnell, assistant professor in MSU's Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology, and Plant Pathology, and James Stewart, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. George Eli Howell, III, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dan Zhao, a doctoral student studying molecular biology, also are providing guidance.

"Exosomes are tiny vesicles that cells use to communicate with each other. We are trying to find a biomarker that shows cardiovascular disease on a cellular level," Mitchell said.

Farnell said collaborators from Indiana University School of Medicine and Purdue University provide tissue and blood samples from their Ossabaw Swine Core Facility, the only research and large-scale breeding colony of Ossabaw swine in the world with samples certified to have a gene mutation—basically, a propensity to obesity.

"Most researchers use a different model, such as mice, but since the pig is anatomically closer to humans than mice, this tissue is ideal for our research. The samples are very expensive and we wouldn't be able to conduct this research without funding from university entities."

Farnell said Mitchell has been an outstanding student and researcher throughout the entire process.

"Kellie is a highly-motivated, independent student who displays an exceptional wealth of knowledge," he added.

Mitchell, who plans to graduate in May, is currently applying to medical school. Scientists and students at MSU will continue to work on exploring an early detection method for heart disease.

For Mitchell, the learning process has taught many life lessons.

"Research isn't something that gives you instant gratification—it is a very long process," Mitchell said. "You have to be okay with things going wrong, or your hypothesis failing, and you need to be able to get back up again and try something else."

Learn more about MSU's Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at

Date: 2016-02-24

Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology