The AHA Institutional Research Enhancement Award program recently announced its first round of grants to faculty members from 13 academic institutions to support small-scale research projects related to cardiovascular diseases and stroke.
The grant will allow Audrey Vasauskas, PhD, and her students at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine in Dothan to continue their research into the role of FKBP51 in pulmonary arterial hypertension.
“By including students in research projects such as this one, they gain a deeper understanding of evidence-based medicine, which I believe really solidifies their training as future physicians,” said Vasauskas, assistant professor of physiology and molecular medicine.
The AHA created AIREA to expose more students to cardiovascular research by extending grants to smaller academic centers that historically receive little government funding.
Vasauskas and her students are investigating the molecular mechanisms involved in the remodeling of pulmonary vessels characteristic of PAH. The research looks at novel cell-signaling pathways that link changes in BMPR2 signaling with transforming growth factor β that may induce the reprogramming of pulmonary artery endothelial cells to a constrictive, occlusive, smooth muscle phenotype.
Pulmonary arterial hypertension is characterized by the disruption of vascular structural integrity leading to arterial remodeling, increased resistance and ultimately death.
“Thus, there is a critical need to better understand the mechanisms underlying cellular alterations that lead to the eventual occlusion of vessels,” Vasauskas said.
Vasauskas’ research is a perfect example of how the AIREA program is helping the AHA connect with the next generation of physicians and researchers, said AHA Immediate Past-President Steven R. Houser, PhD, FAHA.
“It will take some time to see the results of the research we’re funding, but we’ve already seen how the program has expanded our outreach,” said Houser, director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at Temple University in Philadelphia. “We’ve reached into areas of the country we haven’t been before. Some of the best and brightest students are at these schools, and we need to carry our message to them.”
Houser, who trained at a small university that didn’t have a lot of “big-time research,” still found his way to cardiovascular science. He said the AHA wants to make sure that folks at smaller institutions don’t have to rely on luck.
“A lot of great fundamental biology is taking place at small schools,” he said. “The next cardiovascular or stroke scientist who makes a great impact on health may be at a small institution as we speak.”