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NIH Grants UVA Researchers $2.7M that Could Lead to Precision Treatment for Deadly Heart Plaque

980 Days ago

Engineering and medicine team up to develop new diagnostic tool

Charlottesville, Va., Oct. 29, 2019 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- The National Institutes of Health has awarded a $2.7 million grant to scientists from the University of Virginia to study a genetic variation associated with coronary heart disease.

Together, experts from UVA’s Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, the Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center and the Department of Biomedical Engineering hope to uncover the disease’s origin and development. A breakthrough here could lead to more effective, individualized treatments for coronary heart disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women, and coronary heart disease, a type of cardiovascular disease also known as “heart artery plaque” or “hardening of the arteries,” claims more than 370,000 lives annually.

“Identifying new approaches to address cardiovascular disease promises to provide added benefit in terms of treatment and prevention,” said Dr. Coleen McNamara, Frances Myers Ball professor of internal medicine at the UVA School of Medicine. “We are grateful to the UVA Center for Engineering in Medicine for the seed grant that funded work to generate key feasibility data for this successful grant application.”

Dr. McNamara will work with Eli Zunder, a UVA assistant professor of biomedical engineering. Combining medicine and engineering, they will develop a technique to investigate the cellular and molecular processes behind the deadly buildup of plaque in the arteries, called atherosclerosis.

Dr. McNamara’s group is credited with discovering a link to cardiovascular disease on the ID3 gene: a genetic variation called a “single nucleotide polymorphism.” Yet it remains a mystery exactly how the genetic variation influences the production of arterial wall plaque. Zunder said McNamara had “previously shown that cells of the immune system are likely to play a role in the ID3-cardiovascular disease association, but we suspected that other cell types may be involved.”

McNamara and Zunder aim to find out what functions the ID3 gene regulates by examining cell behavior in the artery wall.

Dr. McNamara and Zunder will use Zunder’s expertise in flow cytometry, a laboratory method used to analyze cell characteristics, to examine the behavior of multiple different cell types in the arterial wall simultaneously. This high-dimensional analysis will create a comprehensive picture of how the ID3 variation affects the artery wall.

If the exact connection between the ID3 gene and cardiovascular disease is revealed, then a patient’s genetic makeup might be used to inform treatment strategies. “By adding newly identified measurements to heart plaque risk scores,” Dr. McNamara said, “we may have a way to enhance predictive capabilities and eventually provide precision treatment based on a patient’s genotype.”

“We have known for 20 years that the ID3 gene was connected to cardiovascular disease, and we identified the association of the single nucleotide polymorphism with human artery plaque 10 years ago,” Dr. McNamara said. “But we did not have the technology to identify the unique changes on a single-cell level that would enhance our insights into how this occurs. With Eli Zunder’s biomedical advancements and the marriage of our two specialties, we may be able to uncover the processes that trigger disease and create an effective precision diagnostic tool in a much shorter time frame.”

“Our pilot study was designed to test the feasibility of applying my single-cell analysis techniques to this system,” said Zunder. “The preliminary results have been very promising, and now we’re excited to apply this technique to further investigate other parts of the system.”

Dr. McNamara and Zunder’s research has also garnered attention from the American Heart Association, which recently awarded them two related grants totaling $500,000 over the next three years.




The Center for Engineering in Medicine identifies, develops and translates ideas at the engineering-medicine interface to improve prevention, diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of disease. UVA engineers and clinicians are forming innovative new research partnerships while building a comprehensive, sustainable ecosystem for advancing the future of medical care. Currently, more than 200 engineers and clinicians from 31 departments and divisions across UVA are engaged in engineering-medicine projects supported by the center. Learn more at engineering.virginia.edu/eim.

About UVA Engineering: As part of the top-ranked, comprehensive University of Virginia, UVA Engineering is one of the nation’s oldest and most respected engineering schools. Our mission is to make the world a better place by creating and disseminating knowledge and by preparing future engineering leaders. Outstanding students and faculty from around the world choose UVA Engineering because of our growing and internationally recognized education and research programs. UVA is the No. 1 public engineering school in the country for the percentage of women graduates, among schools with at least 75 degree earners; the No. 1 public engineering school in the United States for the four-year graduation rate of undergraduates students; and the top engineering school in the country for the rate of Ph.D. enrollment growth. Learn more at engineering.virginia.edu.

Elizabeth Thiel Mather
University of Virginia School of Engineering

Wende Hope
University of Virginia School of Engineering

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