A biologist follows the call of the heart - Prof. Dr. Portrait of Petra Kleinbongard

Like many women of her generation, Petra Kleinbongard, who was born in the 1970s, studied biology. She then found her professional destiny in medicine: Today she is deputy head of the Institute for Pathophysiology at the University Hospital in Essen and researches how the heart can be better protected against damage caused by an infarction. And she encourages other young women to venture into the "elbow society" of medicine.

Petra Kleinbongard is a woman that others immediately want as a mentor. At least that's what her co-worker and PhD student say about her. "The Kleinbongard is simply mega!" - so the unequivocal verdict. She demands and encourages. Is strict and consistent in the right places. But never lose the warmth of your heart. And she stands up for her beliefs. In addition, she is part of the team, always approachable and always helps in the middle of the experiment if someone needs support. Whoever your own team talks about like that has basically made it. Professionally outstanding, personally approachable and likeable. And still driven by the motivation to make the world a little bit better.

The career of Prof. Dr. Not Kleinbongard. "To be honest: I studied for a really long time because I didn't feel like going to work properly," she says when she remembers studying biology in Bochum. "I'd rather work part-time in an organic shop or spend my time with youth work." In fact, she was very disappointed at the beginning of her studies - too much zoology and botany combined with endless memorization of the correct names for plants. "Besides, we only heard horror scenarios from our professors along the lines of 'Either the medicine machine will eat you up one day or you'll lose your job,'" she says.

Her motivation: save the world with biology

It was thanks to an internship that she found the “thrill”, as she calls it, in medicine shortly before her diploma. “At the time, I was researching parasites that transmit sleeping sickness. A truly terrible disease from which thousands of people are still dying. I hadn't realized that at all. And I realized that there is biology that is really relevant. And that medicine – although I was so demonized about it – is really great.”

Saving the world with biology – it could not have set itself a higher goal. In fact, she found her real destiny, if you like to call it that, in cardiology, the science that deals with the heart. And this also shows that it is not always the clear, planned path that leads to the goal. “After graduating, I registered as a job seeker. And that's why I had to go to the Düsseldorf University Hospital for an interview. To cardiology. Actually, I didn't have much motivation. The responsible doctor showed me everything, explained the problems and questions to me and said I could help him to solve them. That was it for me.”

Cardioprotection: protecting the heart

To this end, she and her team of scientific staff, biological technical assistants, doctoral students and other graduates research the protective mechanisms of the heart. Because the body protects the heart cells itself in the event of an infarction. The idea: once the mechanisms have been decoded, people of a certain age or during heart surgery can be treated with these mechanisms. So that they are better off than before after the heart attack.

Today, a good 20 years later, she is standing in the laboratory of the University Hospital Essen and seems as if it had been clear from the beginning that she would be here one day. She says about herself that as a woman she had to fight her way through. “We tick really differently than men. There are many behavioral patterns that I don't like in men, but I could and had to learn a few things from them.” That much-cited certain bite. They are not driven by greed for power, status or money. She is driven by her curiosity and the desire to leave something meaningful. In concrete terms, she wants to use her work to help people one day be better off after a heart attack than they are today - maybe even ensure that fewer people die from a heart attack.

"Unfortunately, it has not yet been possible to transfer the very successful heart-protecting interventions from the experiment to clinical routine, i.e. to humans. We know too little about the underlying so-called cardioprotective mechanisms involved and about the question of which cells in the heart need to be protected.” For years, researchers have focused on protecting heart muscle cells. However, there are indications that the early protection of the microcirculation, i.e. the vessels, also results in improved heart function after an infarction. “However, this is incredibly difficult to prove experimentally. That's why my goal is to research this and bring it into everyday clinical practice."

Heart attack - what is it?

Illnesses such as a heart attack or a stroke are the most common causes of death in Germany. Around 40 percent of all deaths can be attributed to such cardiovascular diseases, in which the blood flow to vital organs is interrupted. During a heart attack, blood vessels in the heart become blocked, so that the heart muscles are temporarily not supplied with blood.

Doctors can open this closure again with the help of catheter operations - so-called stents are often placed. These are small metal mesh tubes that keep the vessel open again at the closed point. The musculature of the heart is damaged by the interrupted supply. The heart attack often leads directly to death, many patients die afterwards from the tissue damage or their health is extremely restricted by the heart attack because the heart can no longer beat as vigorously.

What makes a good scientist? Frustration Tolerance!

To ensure that research on this topic continues in the future, she is already trying to attract young scientists. She is aware that a career in the clinical environment requires a special personality. “I would like to show our young bachelor students how they can find their way in this world. However, I only do that when I notice that the person is really motivated. Because only with their own drive do they manage to assert themselves in science.”

In addition to inner motivation, she also considers the courage to fail to be crucial. She still remembers the moment when her father said to her: "You are very interested, that's good. But: You also have to be frustration-tolerant – always!” As an assessment of the thesis, he even wrote that she had a high tolerance in this regard. Like many of her students today, she couldn't understand it at first. Technically competent, methodically clean - those would have been assessments that she would have wished for. But after countless years of trial and error, she now knows: "That was the most important piece of advice in my professional life."

Petra Kleinbongard is now a recognized specialist – worldwide. “The best thing is that I turned my hobby into my job,” she says. And: "I have earned the respect of others over the past few years and can now stand up for my own values." Authenticity is important in order to be happy in the job in the long term. Her team notices that too.

If that's not a success for women in science.

Cardio research background

Cardioprotection – protecting the heart

The research group around Prof. Dr. In recent years, Kleinbongard has already discovered how the heart muscles are better protected during and after a heart attack: the spleen plays a central role as a switching organ. If the blood flow to the arm or leg is interrupted by inflating and deflating a blood pressure cuff, the autonomic nervous system activates the spleen and releases substances that protect the heart into the blood. This protective maneuver improves the survival of the heart muscle cells. The heart attack gets smaller. The researchers now want to find out how the vessels are protected in the event of a heart attack.

Copyright photos: University Hospital Essen Media Center / Martin Kaiser, zdi.NRW-2020

This is how one explores the heart

Of course, the scientists do not work directly on the human heart. Nevertheless, human material is regularly lost during heart operations, which the researchers use instead of throwing away. For example, muscle strands can be isolated from the atrial appendage. If these are then clamped into a small apparatus, the biologists can stimulate these muscles in the apparatus to contract. Then they simulate a heart attack, for example by reducing the energy supply. Afterwards, energy is supplied again and a damage pattern can be seen in the tissue that is very similar to that of a real heart attack. Now, for example, the scientists can add blood containing certain protective proteins before the artificial infarction to see whether and how these substances protect the muscles.  

Institute for Pathophysiology at the Essen Clinic

The Institute for Pathophysiology is part of the West German Heart and Vascular Center of the University Hospital Essen. It is headed by Prof. Dr. Gerd Heusch; Prof. Dr. Petra Kleinbongard is the deputy director. Around 20 employees research here, among other things, the protective mechanisms of the heart in the event of a heart attack. In addition to scientific staff, biological-technical assistants and doctoral students, many bachelor’s and master’s students also write their theses here.

Here is the website of the institute: http://whgz.de/de/pathophysiologie-de

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