Rachel Russell: Quantifying Elastin in the Murine Vaginal Wall

Pelvic organ prolapse (POP) is the loss of vaginal support that leads to the descent of the pelvic organs, such as the uterus and bladder. It affects the quality of life for 41% of women and results in an annual cost of over one million dollars. Although the underlying mechanism for POP is not fully known, it has been shown that elastin metabolism is altered in the vagina of women with POP. Elastic fibers are important contributors to mechanical function of soft tissues, such as arteries and lungs. They are composed of bundles of elastin, which provides resilience and recoil to soft tissues, cross-linked with amino acid residues, such as desmosine that signifies mature elastic fibers. Elastic fiber contribution to the mechanical function of the vagina, however, is not fully understood, and may be of significance to maintaining pelvic support and preventing descent of the pelvic organs. Therefore, it is important to determine correlations between elastic fiber composition and vaginal mechanical properties. Desmosine is key in the cross-linking of elastin to form the elastic fibers, and is characteristic of mature elastic fibers.

Thus, the goal of this project was to validate a procedure that would accurately determine the composition of desmosine in vaginal tissue and compare that to the accepted way to determine the composition of elastin in vaginal tissue.  Such information could be leveraged to determine a better way to quantify elastic fiber content, which is important in the understanding of various POP risk factors. I was able to complete the validation of the procedure to determine the desmosine composition and compared that to the accepted values of elastic fibers in the vaginal tissue of mice. So far, the measurements correlate correctly, and hopefully this will provide an opportunity to continue to progress the research regarding the role that elastic fiber content plays in developing POP.

This project was completed at the Biomechanics of Growth and Remodeling lab in the JBJ building on the downtown Tulane campus. I was mentored by Dr. Miller and a graduate student, Gabrielle Clark, but I primarily did the experiments myself. I utilized the grant funds to pay for rent while I was staying in New Orleans, which was quintessential to my completing my research over the summer. This generous award was very much appreciated, and allowed me to complete more aspects of my project than I could have hoped at the beginning. The opportunity to complete this project showed me the advantages of working in a laboratory setting and have increased my knowledge about the different job opportunities I would have in the future as a biomedical engineer. I also was able to learn more about the female reproductive system as well as soft tissue structure and function, which will help me be more prepared for any path I decide to take in the future, whether it be medical school, graduate school, or industry.

Written by Rachel Russell, Dean’s Grant recipient, 2018