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Researchers looking for causes of heart disease

By Suzanne Morris

The American Heart Association, estimates that cardiovascular disease is responsible for more than 40 percent of all deaths in the U.S. One in five Americans suffers from high blood pressure, and coronary artery disease is the single leading cause of death in America today.

Researchers at the U.Va. Health System received an $8 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health for a program to study how blood vessels develop and how their contracting and relaxing activity is regulated. The long-term aim of the research is to better understand the causes of high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, which could eventually lead to new treatments.

"In this program, we expect to identify the groups of molecules that are responsible for muscle development, growth, gene expression, and contraction and relaxation in blood vessels. This should provide us with new targets for developing treatments for common cardiovascular diseases," said principal investigator Avril Somlyo, professor of pathology and of molecular physiology and biological physics.

Part of the program will study a hormone which is known to stimulate cell growth, angiotensin II. The researchers will try to understand how growth occurs in the normal development of the blood vessels in the embryo, and also in re-narrowing of arteries in patients who have had angioplasty, a procedure in which the blood flow to the heart is increased. In addition, the researchers will examine how genes that regulate blood vessel development are copied.

"We believe that understanding the signaling pathways that regulate blood vessel development and regrowth are a key to the development of new therapies," Somlyo said.

In the study, investigators also will try to determine what signals blood vessel muscles to contract or dilate. When smooth muscle cells of blood vessels contract, the space within the vessel narrows, decreasing blood flow and increasing blood pressure.

Along with Somlyo, Gary Owens, professor of molecular physiology and biological physics, and Timothy Haystead, associate professor of pharmacology, will lead the program's three projects conducted at U.Va. An additional project will be conducted by David Trentham at the National Institute for Medical Research in London.


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