Celine Santiago & zebrafish

Creating a Name on the World Stage

Dr Celine Santiago has just completed a quadruple whammy of achievements.

26 August 2022

The rising star gave her first international talk at the International Society for Heart Research Congress, was the recipient of the ISHR World Congress Visiting Research Fellowship in Berlin, and won a CVRN Professional Development Award.

And did we mention she won the ISHR International Poster prize too?

It’s an exceptional tally for any researcher let alone an early career investigator and highlights the incredible work she is doing to improve our understanding of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a major cause of heart failure and heart transplantation worldwide.

The Institute's Dr Celine Santigo at the 2022 ISHR World Congress conference in Berlin

What an incredible few weeks you’ve just had. What was it like to give your first international talk?

This year's ISHR World Congress was very special for me for a lot of reasons! It's my first international meeting since receiving my PhD (and since COVID hit) Not many early career investigators (ECI) are given a talk slot in the main symposium program at international meetings, so I felt very lucky! I also chaired my first international panel discussion where I got to chat with a few big names in cardiovascular research. I’m lucky that I was supported by the CVRN Professional Development Award in my overseas travels.

Congrats on the poster win! Is this your first international award? How significant is it?

This is the second international poster prize I've been lucky enough to receive. My first was also given to me by ISHR back at the 2019 World Congress in Beijing! Receiving international awards is always significant because they are recognition of the quality of a researcher’s work and their contribution to the field on the global stage. International awards are particularly important for early career researchers who are still carving out a niche for themselves in the research world – having received this award means that senior investigators in my field may be more familiar with who I am and the work that I do, which could potentially lead to collaborations or other career opportunities down the track.

What does the Visiting Research Fellowship entail?

The ISHR Visiting Research Fellowship enables early career researchers (ECRs) to visit a host lab for at least one week immediately before or after the ISHR World Congress. The idea is that an ECR will identify a lab that specialises in a particular technique that is important for the ECR’s research and will visit that lab to learn the technique so that they can then apply it to their research.

When I heard about these fellowships, I jumped at the chance to apply so that I could visit Professor Wolfgang Linke’s lab at the Institute for Physiology II in Munster, Germany. Prof. Linke’s lab houses world-renowned experts in titin protein studies, and they very generously agreed to teach me how to carry out these technically challenging studies. Learning these methods will allow me to bring important molecular insights to my research about the role of titin genetic variants in dilated cardiomyopathy. Over and above this, this fellowship has allowed me to form new relationships with researchers in my field outside Australia, and gain experience in different research cultures. I highly recommend this program to any PhD students and ECRs! This program is usually offered every congress year (the next one is 2025) so keep an eye out for it.

Dr Celine Santiago poses with her ISHR Scientific Poster prize and a fellow winner

What research did you feature on your poster?

I featured our ongoing research modelling genetic variants in the gene encoding the titin protein in zebrafish. These genetic variants are the most common genetic cause of the common heart muscle disorder, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), which is a major cause of heart failure and heart transplantation worldwide. Researchers all around the world are still trying to understand exactly how these genetic variants cause DCM, and the research featured on my poster (and in my talk) detailed our investigations into whether the location of a variant along the titin gene contributes to the likelihood of a variant being disease-causing.

You’ve also just been awarded a grant from the Walter and Eileen Ralston Trust - What will you focus on?

This grant allows me to extend the work I began in my PhD investigating the impact of environmental stressors or ‘disease modifiers’ in dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), such as alcohol and widely used chemotherapy drugs. Our work specifically focuses on DCM caused by genetic variants/mutations that shorten a protein called ‘titin’, which is vital for normal heart development and function. These variants in the TTN gene called TTNtv are the most common genetic cause of DCM. We plan to use our zebrafish to model the effects of multiple disease modifiers on heart function and structure alone and in combination with a TTNtv.

We hope by comparing the effects of multiple disease modifiers with TTNtv, we’ll be able to identify critical molecular pathways that may trigger disease onset in an individual. This would not only help us to prioritise which disease modifiers/stressors are more important than others, potentially helping us improve disease management for patients and their families, but it could also help us to identify new targets for disease therapy to be studied in the future.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years