“I always loved the workings of the human body, particularly the heart”

Diciembre 22, 2021

"I always loved the workings of the human body, particularly the heart"

The scientist, Doctorate in Biological Sciences, mention in Cellular and Molecular Biology, currently an Adjunct Professor at the School of Medicine and Health at the University of South Wales (Sydney, Australia), works in the Division of Stem Cell and Developmental Biology at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, specializing in congenital heart diseases.

He was awarded the Honor Scholarship by the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, obtained the Herman Niemmeyer medal and his thesis on regeneration and neuromuscular diseases won the Award of Excellence in Doctoral Thesis. But Osvaldo Contreras (31) was not always the serious and focused scientist he is today. “I was a disaster as a kind, I was kicked out of school, and I had a hard time staying still,” he recalls with a faint smile.

Owner of an inquisitive mind, his family instilled in him as a child that the only way to succeed in life was through education. “My mom bought me a lot of books, of nature, and so this little bulb of science began to light up. Also, one of my grandparents was a farmer. He had a farm, full of animals, on a piece of land where he grew beans or tomatoes, and I have memories of being three, five years old, with my feet in the earth, discovering bugs. Growing up in that rural environment, not a city, was conducive to enchanting myself with what I do, studying living beings and enchanting myself with science in general,” he explains.

However, it was not until the end of high school that he really decided on the scientific world. “In fact, I took the art electives, not science, and I was looking into that until a biology teacher told me: Hey, you are super good at biology, you are one of the few who fully understands, asks questions, participates … Have you ever thought about studying biology?” 

Why did you finally decide to do the doctorate?

As an undergraduate there is a lot of motivation to continue the career and train with the professors who teach you. That seed was there, I visualized myself teaching like some of my teachers. And the seed began to grow. It was a progress that the same faculty instilled in me that I could continue to learn. And my second big motivation was that I wanted to do research. I worked in the laboratory with Dr. Juan Larraín in embryonic development, and they empowered me on a subject, that no one else in the world was doing. Having that experience, that feeling of achieving something unique in knowledge triggered that certainty of saying, “I want to continue doing this.”

From La Florida to Australia

Osvaldo was born and raised in La Florida, in the outskirts of Santiago. He is the first in his family to obtain a university degree, and with his effort and tenacity, he has managed to reach a privileged place in the academic-scientific world in Australia. He is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Medicine and Health at the University of South Wales and works in the Division of Stem Cell and Developmental Biology at the Victor Chang Heart Research Institute, thanks to Richard Harvey, an eminence in the scientific world, a member of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy that includes names such as Isaac Newton, Dorothy Hodgkin and Albert Einstein. “Harvey has discovered genes, he is one of the smartest scientists I’ve ever met, has an incredible resume, and is an eminence globally. He contacted me thanks to my work with Fabio,” explains Osvaldo. 

“Fabio” is Dr. Fabio Rossi, whom Osvaldo met in 2017 when he attended a congress in Ottawa, Canada. Rossi was the Italian doctor who discovered the cells Osvaldo was studying for his doctoral thesis. “I sent him an email, he came to my poster presentation, we talked, we went to lunch, and I just took a leap into faith and said, ‘I’d love to go to your lab,” Osvaldo explains. “The university was extremely important, the Graduate School gave me scholarships to pay for operating expenses, and I arrived at the laboratory of my dreams, in British Columbia, in a wonderful city”. The three months of internship became ten, where Osvaldo managed to establish a very important international nucleus, to the point that Dr. Rossi was present in the defense of Osvaldo’s thesis, thanks to the support of the VRI.

Osvaldo’s hearts

The juxtaposition between art and science, in a way, finally converged in his career, which is currently focused on investigating congenital heart diseases. “I always loved the workings of the human body, particularly the heart,” he explains. “The heart, throughout evolution, has changed, it is not static, it also has enough of feeling, it is an extremely interesting tissue,” he says.

How did your doctoral training contribute to your current work?

I did my doctorate with Dr. Enrique Brandan, who is a specialist in muscular dystrophies and in general in how certain skeleton-muscular pathologies affect the functioning of skeletal muscle, where there are different types of cells. He focuses on two specific cells: myogenic cells, which are responsible for forming muscle fibers, and fibroblasts, the most common cell in connective tissue. I studied their behavior, transcription factors, proteins that regulated in a condition of homeostasis, in an unrede damaged muscle, and how they responded to different challenges, such as acute, chronic muscle damage, or seeing specific things like Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But at one point I thought: muscle can’t be everything, there are other tissues. And just one professor, Cecilia Riquelme, came from the United States and had done her post doctorate studying pythons and how snakes had a super interesting process to regenerate their heart.

Frank Baum wrote in The Wizard of Oz that hearts will never be practical until they can become unbreakable. Something scientifically impossible, particularly with the various existing heart diseases that still need tobe studied. “A large percentage of my research focuses on hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS). It is one of the rarest congenital heart diseases out there, the entire part of a child’s left ventricle is not formed during pregnancy, and when they are born, they must go through a process of multiple open-heart surgeries. Their heart is completely reconstituted, a single heart is formed, but despite all this, unfortunately 60% of children who outlive the age of 6 years subsequently suffer heart failure and need a transplant,” summarizes Osvaldo. This research work takes him back to his undergraduate work, transforming skin fibroblasts into stem cells, or pluripotent stem cells, and using specific chemicals, induces them to form cardiomyocytes, creating, basically, a heart.

It’s not the only thing he researches at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute. Between cups of chai tea, and to the rhythm of Rawayana, Manuel García or Sticky Fingers on his earphones, Osvaldo focuses on his second area of research, which is limited to the study of cardiovascular failures that Osvaldo calls “the silent model of a heart attack”. Using single cell transcriptomics (single-cell transcriptomics), Osvaldo focuses on heart failure with preserved ejection fraction.

The work is long but satisfying. At the end of the workday, Osvaldo sometimes goes surfing to Maroubra, one of the beaches near where he lives, but normally prefers to take his bike and pedal home where the two people who manage to get his heart to have premature ventricular contractions are: Alejandra, his wife, and Olivia, his two-year-old daughter, who basically make his heart skip a beat.


Graduate School

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