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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State University biology professor Sanford Bernstein was awarded $3.5 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health to further his studies into how fruit flies could lead to treatments for muscle and cardiac diseases, university officials said Wednesday.

Bernstein’s work involves myosin, which are the proteins that allow the muscles to contract. Bernstein and his team are working to find out what role that mutant myosin genes play in the deterioration of skeletal and heart muscle, according to SDSU.

sdsuStudents3“By creating fruit fly models, our team has gained insight into myosin mutations known to cause human muscle defects,” said Bernstein, who has been studying fruit flies for more than 30 years.

“Knowledge of how the variants affect protein biochemistry, muscle structure and muscle contraction may aid in development of both drug and genetic therapies for patients with these weaknesses.”

Researchers said understanding the structure and function of the myosin protein and how it affects muscle structure and contraction in flies could help them to better understand it in humans.

Bernstein and his researchers have studied genetically altered flies with engineered forms of the protein in hopes of better understanding forms of distal arthrogryposis, which cause muscles in the face, legs and arms to over- contract. They are also working toward understanding the thickening of the heart wall called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, according to the university.

“We are attempting to reproduce this occurrence in fly hearts so that we can define the molecular defects that result from the abnormal myosin,” Bernstein said. “By researching the fruit fly heart, our team hopes to have a better understanding of human heart disease and develop some direction toward relevant treatments.”

Bernstein is in his third decade of receiving funding from the NIH, Muscular Dystrophy Association and American Heart Association, university officials said.