Strokes. Maternal mortality. Hypertension.
Those are a few of the most pressing health issues in Texas, and they also are the focus of innovative research projects by junior investigators in the Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease.
Between them, these scientists’ ideas could change the way we rehabilitate stroke and heart attack victims, save the lives of expectant mothers and discover novel ways to protect people from high blood pressure.
Protecting the heart and brain
Could a novel exercise technique traditionally used to increase muscle mass also help protect the vital organs following a stroke or heart attack?
Caroline Rickards, PhD, and Justin Sprick, a PhD candidate in the Cerebral & Cardiovascular Physiology Laboratory, are proposing that it may.
Their research focuses on blood flow restriction exercise, which uses inflatable cuffs to reduce blood from entering and leaving exercising muscles. This type of exercise is traditionally used for building muscle mass, but related studies suggest it may also release factors into the blood that could protect the heart and brain during a subsequent heart attack or stroke.
Dr. Rickards and Sprick want to know if combining cycles of blood flow restriction to the limbs with rehabilitation exercises commonly performed by stroke or heart attack survivors — such as treadmill walking — could enhance the benefits of both treatments.
“Just exercising during rehabilitation promotes protection of the heart and brain, but incorporating blood flow restriction exercise could provide additional benefits,” Dr. Rickards said. “If patients were to suffer another heart attack or stroke, it could reduce the degree of damage to the vital organs.”
The study is funded by a UNTHSC Faculty Research Pilot Grant, as well as a Student Research Development Award that Sprick received from the Texas Chapter of the American College of Sport Medicine. Dr. Rickards and Sprick are first studying the treatment in healthy young adults, who perform weight lifting and treadmill exercise with and without blood flow restriction. Each participant’s blood is analyzed for the protective factors of interest.
Preliminary results are promising. Dr. Rickards and Sprick plan to pursue additional funding this summer to test how the treatment translates to older adults at higher risk of cardiovascular events.
“Ideally, this could lead to development of an exercise regimen that could help protect people at risk of suffering another adverse cardiovascular event while also facilitating their recovery,” Sprick said.
Saving a mother’s life
Stella Goulopoulou, PhD, never forgets the families who have lost mothers or babies to preeclampsia, a condition that is a leading cause of maternal and infant mortality.
Their faces are a driving force behind her research into what causes preeclampsia during pregnancy, and why it leaves mothers and babies at greater risk of cardiovascular problems.
Dr. Goulopoulou’s work has earned her a four-year, $308,000 grant from the American Heart Association, as well as an ICMD seed grant.
“Meeting the families impacted by preeclampsia is not something you forget,” she said.
Preeclampsia affects up to 9 percent of all pregnancies. Worldwide, 76,000 women and 500,000 infants die from it. The condition can damage the woman’s placenta, shut down the kidneys or liver and cause seizures in the mother.
In a healthy pregnancy, cells that make up the placenta die and new cells are created. But during pregnancies with preeclampsia, the rate of cell death increases. Those dying cells release chemical substances that travel in the blood and can damage maternal body organs.
Dr. Goulopoulou and her lab believe those substances increase the mother’s blood pressure and endanger the mother’s and baby’s lives. Through her research, she hopes to identify those substances, determine why they cause pregnancy complications and, ultimately, help discover early detection methods and drugs to treat preeclampsia.
A novel way to study hypertension
Hypertension and lupus impact minorities at a disproportionate rate. Keisa Mathis, PhD, wants to understand the similarities between these two potentially deadly diseases.
Dr. Mathis, a native Louisianan who joined UNTHSC in 2014, believes a malfunction of the immune system plays a role in the development and maintenance of both diseases; and her research is designed to determine why that malfunction occurs.
The American Heart Association awarded Dr. Mathis a $308,000 four-year grant.
“We want to know what causes the immune system to go haywire and develop into lupus — and why inflammation especially in the kidneys often turn into long-term increases in blood pressure,” Dr. Mathis said. “Because there is a high prevalence of hypertension in patients with Lupus , we can use the Lupus model to study the link between chronic kidney inflammation and blood pressure regulation.”
Dr. Mathis began studying the diseases as a post-doctoral fellow in 2009. She and her research team are currently examining the connection in laboratory mice. About 75 million American adults have high blood pressure — or 1 in every 3 adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hypertension is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
About 1.5 million Americans are estimated to have lupus, a chronic autoimmune inflammatory disease that can affect the kidneys, but also the brain, heart, lungs, blood, skin and joints.
“I believe our research could help lead to therapeutic approaches that could benefit both hypertensive patients and people with lupus,” Dr. Mathis said.