July 10, 2014

AHA grant creates coalition to prevent heart disease, stroke

Vanderbilt University Medical Center is one of four institutions that are part of a new research network aimed at preventing heart disease and stroke, the two leading causes of death in the world.


Vanderbilt University Medical Center is one of four institutions that are part of a new research network aimed at preventing heart disease and stroke, the two leading causes of death in the world.

The Strategically Focused Prevention Research Network Centers (SFRN) — funded by a $15 million grant from the American Heart Association — is designed to help people live longer, healthier lives.

Obesity, high blood pressure and heart failure are among the areas being studied by the collaborative network, which includes investigators at Vanderbilt, Northwestern University, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center.

The project leaders for the Vanderbilt SFRN include David Harrison, M.D., Jens Titze, M.D., associate professor of Medicine, and Thomas Wang, M.D., director of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine. C. Michael Stein, M.B.Ch.B., will direct the fellowship training component. The center will also involve co-investigators from the Division of Epidemiology and the Department of Biostatistics. Vanderbilt researchers will focus their efforts on developing new approaches for preventing high blood pressure.

Their goals are to understand how salt causes tissue injury, to develop a method to detect and lower excess salt and to determine the feasibility of treating a medically underserved population with the “polypill” in order to prevent cardiovascular disease. A polypill contains a combination of several medications commonly used to treat heart disease and high blood pressure.

“Being a participant in the AHA SFRN is an enormous opportunity,” said Harrison, director of Clinical Pharmacology and the Betty and Jack Bailey Professor of Medicine, Pharmacology and Physiology.

“Our center will focus on preventing hypertension, which is an enormous risk factor for heart disease, stroke and kidney disease. We are beginning to understand how common risk factors like diet and lifestyle predispose to hypertension, and are taking measures to correct these,” Harrison said.

Vanderbilt researchers have developed a method that allows them to see salt stores in humans, and have found that certain people store large amounts of salt in their skin and blood vessels. They are beginning to understand that salt directly activates immune cells, and leads them to attack blood vessels and the kidney.

“We will learn how to prevent this and ultimately to reduce the damage caused by these cells,” Harrison said.

An important aspect of Vanderbilt’s program will be to train young physician scientists in the translational and population research approaches that will be used in these studies.
The Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai will work to build a culture of health in Harlem, New York City, with an urban-based health program targeting kids who are as young as 3 as well as their caregivers. The University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center will focus on heart failure prevention while colleagues at Northwestern University will take a closer look at why heart-health measures decline from childhood to middle age.

Each network center will receive about $3.8 million during the next four years.

“Heart attack and stroke can strike suddenly, and frequently without warning. The best way to reduce premature mortality from cardiovascular diseases and stroke is to prevent the development of the risk factors that lead to these conditions,” said AHA President Elliott Antman, M.D., professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a senior physician in the cardiovascular division of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“Scientists working in these research centers are helping to discover the mechanisms that will allow all Americans to live healthier lives, helping lead us to a culture of health.”