Heather Burkin

Heather Burkin, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Summary

Research in my laboratory is focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms that promote uterine contraction and the onset of labor. Preterm birth is the leading cause of neonatal morbidity and mortality in the developed world and the long-term goal is to develop new therapies to promote uterine quiescence and allow a greater proportion of infants to be carried to term. Identification of new pharmacological agents to reduce uterine contraction would reduce preterm birth rates, reduce perinatal health disparities, and improve pregnancy outcomes, all of which have been identified as high priority research problems by the National Institutes of Health. My research has primarily focused on three related projects.

First, we are investigating the role of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) in the regulation of uterine contraction and birth timing. This work is currently funded by an NIH R01 award from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development. We have shown that expression and activity of MMPs 2 and 9 are elevated in the smooth muscle of the preterm laboring uterus, and that the inhibition of these enzymes reduces contraction in human uterine tissue and delays birth in mice (Ulrich et al., 2019). We are currently working to determine specific mechanisms of MMP9 action in uterine smooth muscle and determine if MMP inhibition prevents preterm delivery in preclinical animal models.

We are also working to understand how mechanical strain causes changes in uterine smooth muscle that precipitate labor. Abnormal uterine distension is associated with cellular stress and increased risk of preterm delivery. We have previously described global changes in phospho-signaling networks that occur in response to mechanical stress on uterine smooth muscle cells (Copley Salem et al., 2018). We are currently working to elucidate how mechanical strain promotes inflammatory signaling, myometrial activation, and increased risk of preterm labor and if specific pathway inhibition can prevent these outcomes. This work has been funded by an R00 award from the NIH The Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute for Child Health and Human Development and a supplemental research award from the Nevada INBRE.

Finally, we have been funded by Nevada INBRE Developmental Research Project and Women’s Health Supplement Awards to develop a novel 3D bio-printed model of human uterine tissue. In the long term, we hope this new model can serve as a homogeneous and widely available tissue source for use in experiments to elucidate important players in contraction and relaxation pathways and for pharmacological studies to identify and test potential new tocolytic drugs.

PRemature Infant

Premature infants often face prolonged hospitalization and increased risk of neonatal mortality, and lifelong health problems.

Positions

  • 2013-present Assistant Professor, Department of Pharmacology, University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine
  • 2011-2013 Research Assistant Professor, Department of Pharmacology, University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine
  • 2010-2011 Postdoctoral Scientist, Department of Pharmacology, University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine
  • 2003-2004 Postdoctoral Scientist, Department of Physiology, University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine
  • 1997-2003 Graduate Student, Department of Animal Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana

Honors

  • 2019 AAMC Early Career Women Faculty Leadership Development Seminar
  • 2003 University of Illinois College of ACES Graduate Student Research Award
  • 2002-2003 David H. and Norraine A. Baker Graduate Fellowship in Animal Sciences
  • 1998-2000 United States Public Health Service Fellowship in Reproductive Biology

Professional Societies

  • 2017-present The American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • 2013-present The Society for the Study of Reproduction
  • 2012-present The Society for Reproductive Investigation

Teaching

Courses Directed

  • 2019-present PHAR 692 Problems in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics
  • 2013-present PHAR 770 Reproductive Pharmacology
  • 2015-2018 MED 640 Gastrointestinal, Endocrine, and Reproductive Systems II
  • 2012 PHAR 794 Reproductive Pharmacology Journal Club

Didactic Sessions

  • 2020-present MED 633 Gastrointestinal, Endocrine, and Reproductive Systems I
  • 2013-present MED 640 Gastrointestinal, Endocrine, and Reproductive Systems II
  • 2013-present PHAR 770 Reproductive Pharmacology
  • 2012-2019 PHAR 725 Ethics in Scientific Research
  • 2011-present PHAR 710 Molecular Pharmacology

Courses Facilitated

  • 2020-present Clinical Problem Solving (MS years 1&2)

Education

  • B.A. - 1994, University of Colorado, Biology
  • Ph.D. - 2003, University of Illinois, Animal Science