JOHNSON CITY (Feb. 20, 2019) – Cardiovascular health is in the spotlight during February, designated American Heart Month. However, biomedical science researchers at East Tennessee State University work year-round to prevent and treat cardiovascular disease.
Nearly half of all U.S. adults have some type of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). To help address this problem, researchers in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and others at ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine have secured more than $3 million per year in external funding to find new and better treatments for cardiovascular disease.
“Our researchers are committed to discovering ways to make people’s lives better,” said Dr. Theo Hagg, chair of Biomedical Sciences at Quillen. “Over the past five years, we have added more faculty members and increased our funding, and we want to use this growth as a platform to continue to develop and expand our program and research.
“We have 20 medical students, future physicians in our region, between their first and second years, who will come into our research labs to study, among other things, cardiovascular issues.”
Hagg identified four categories of cardiovascular research ongoing in Quillen’s Department of Biomedical Sciences. They include heart disease, atherosclerosis, cerebral stroke and ischemic kidney disease.
“The first category, heart disease, is what typically comes up when we talk about cardiovascular health,” Hagg said.
In the area of heart disease, Dr. Eric Beaumont, associate professor, is studying ways to improve vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), which is a treatment for heart failure. Through VNS, a person’s heart function is improved, thus protecting the heart. Dr. Don Hoover, professor, collaborates with cardiologists at University of California Los Angeles to examine what happens in hearts of people who have heart failure and undergo VNS.
Several researchers are also looking for ways to improve results after heart attacks, including Dr. Krishna Singh, professor, who is focusing on possible pharmacological treatments to prevent cells from dying due to harmful molecules after heart attacks. In addition, Dr. Chuanfu Li, professor in the Department of Surgery at Quillen, is examining ways to prevent or reduce inflammation so that patients will have better outcomes after heart attacks.
While heart attacks among adults are often the focus of conversations about cardiovascular health, Dr. Chad Frasier, assistant professor, is undertaking research to try to help the youngest patients. His research examines sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which is often associated with cardiac arrhythmia, and he is looking for ways to try to predict SIDS.
Atherosclerosis, or the narrowing and clogging of arteries, is a focus of studies by three Quillen investigators, including Dr. Alok Agrawal, professor. Agrawal analyzes a molecule that is involved in inflammatory disease in models like atherosclerosis and has engineered the molecule for better outcomes.
The research of Dr. Douglas Thewke, associate professor, examines fatty diets and the molecules in the cell lining of blood vessels that cause the buildup of plaque.
Dr. Valentin Yakubenko, assistant professor, is studying inflammatory cells that contribute to plaque formation and the narrowing of arteries.
Next is stroke, which is the fifth leading cause of death and the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the U.S., according to the American Stroke Association. To target stroke, Hagg is working toward the development of a drug that will block bad molecules and their effects. His research is also seeking ways to stimulate new cells to form in the brain after stroke. In addition, he is collaborating on stroke models with Dr. Yue Zou, professor.
Finally, according to the AHA, people with kidney disease have an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, mostly due to problems with blood vessels. So, with a grant from the AHA, Dr. Aaron Polichnowski, assistant professor, is undertaking research that focuses on recovery from acute kidney injury.
While the investigators are working on many different aspects of the issue, Hagg said their goal during American Heart Month and every other month remains the same – to find new and more effective treatments for cardiovascular disease.
“Some of the projects under way have already had an impact on patients,” Hagg said. “Others, such as the pharmacological drugs being developed, will take more time.
“The strength of Quillen is that we are a small college and can collaborate easily.
We can share equipment. Many of us are working together on projects. We are moving
in a good direction and hope to continue to increase our funding for this important
research that affects so many lives.”