$11 million NIH grant advances ‘revolutionary’ cardiovascular disease research

University of Nevada, Reno researchers addressing leading cause of death in U.S.

UNR Med COBRE research team

Dr. Tran demonstrates the capabilities of the Center’s new multiphoton microscope that allows deep imaging of tissues, blood flow and neuronal activity to be visualized in the brains of living mice. From left to right: Normand Leblanc, Ph.D., Cam Ha Tran, Ph.D., Yumei Feng, Ph.D., M.D., Shailesh Agarwal, Ph.D., Scott Earley, Ph.D., Brad Ferguson, Ph.D., and Haifeng Zheng, Ph.D. UNR Med photo by Brin Reynolds.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, a fact that underscores the significance of a new interdisciplinary research center being developed at the University of Nevada, Reno. Supported by an $11 million, five-year grant recently awarded through the Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE), a highly competitive program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the research center is focused on better understanding the molecular and cellular signals that regulate the cardiovascular system.

"Most American adults - more than 50% - have one form of cardiovascular disease or another," said Scott Earley, Ph.D., professor in the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine's (UNR Med) department of pharmacology and program director for the new center. "The thematic focus of our center is to develop deep insight into the cellular and molecular functions that lead to cardiovascular disease. Signaling pathways have been traditional targets of pharmaceutical development and we need to more deeply understand this to support further advancements."

While cardiovascular health is significant in itself, research is connecting cardiovascular disease to other aspects of health and quality of life. For example, because it impacts blood flow to the brain, cardiovascular disease is connected to age-related cognitive decline.

The combination of these inter-connections with an aging population leads Earley to cast cardiovascular disease as being "probably more serious than we currently know."

Expertise and Capacity

The Center for Molecular and Cellular Signal Transduction in the Cardiovascular System is the first cardiovascular-basic-science-focused center in Nevada. The concept grew from the collaboration of four accomplished UNR Med researchers in the departments of pharmacology and physiology and cell biology. Earley; Robert Harvey, Ph.D., professor, department of pharmacology; Normand Leblanc, Ph.D., professor, department of pharmacology; and Yumei Feng, Ph.D., M.D., associate professor, department of pharmacology and of physiology and cell biology have strong research programs that have received NIH support.

"The COBRE grant program is one of the most powerful ways to bring together several scientists, labs and facilities in a focused way on a specific group of diseases," said UNR Med Dean Thomas L. Schwenk, M.D. "For example, the COBRE grant will unify an expert team of investigators under an experienced senior investigator to explore key fundamental aspects of cardiovascular function that have a high likelihood of informing new therapeutic approaches to cardiovascular diseases."

A vascular physiologist and biophysicist, Earley is noted for taking a layered, multidisciplinary approach in his lab. As he said, physiology demands a multidisciplinary perspective, as does the "revolutionary research" happening at the molecular, cellular and nanoscale levels.

Early-Career Program Development

The COBRE program further supports the development of early-career faculty. In this instance, the grant will support and provide mentorship for four programs led by early-stage investigators:

  • Bradley Ferguson, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition in the University of Nevada, Reno's College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, focused on epigenetic mechanisms that link metabolic diseases to heart failure;
  • Haifeng Zheng, Ph.D., research assistant professor of physiology and cell biology in UNR Med, focused on novel mechanisms that regulate cardiac pacemaker activity and heart rate;
  • Shailesh Agarwal, Ph.D., research assistant professor of pharmacology in UNR Med, focused on nanoscale cell signaling in heart muscle cells;
  • Cam Ha Tran, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology and cell biology in UNR Med, focused on blood flow regulation in the brain during health and disease.

"One of our jobs as scientists is to train the next generation. My philosophy is bringing these new investigators along and helping them be more successful is probably the most important thing we can do," said Earley. "To me, this is the fun part. You see the raw enthusiasm for science."

"This University has had a proud and successful history of participation in these NIH programs, and this targeted investment has generated a significant, lasting impact on research and teaching," said Mridul Gautam, Ph.D., University vice president for research and innovation. "Nevada, science, medical advancements and students all benefit. It exemplifies the multifaceted and generative impact of the research enterprise."

Editor's note: Read our full feature here: https://www.unr.edu/nevada-today/news/2019/cardiovascular-cobre

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The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Nevada's first public medical school, is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision for a healthy Nevada. Established in 1969, UNR Med is improving the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities through excellence in student education, postgraduate training and clinical care, research with local, national and global impact and a culture of diversity and inclusion.