October 6, 2016

Madhur lands NIH New Innovator Award

Meena Madhur, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine, has received an NIH New Innovator Award, which is designed to support exceptionally creative, early-career investigators who propose innovative, high-impact projects.

Meena Madhur, M.D., Ph.D., is one of 48 recipients of the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award. (photo by John Russell)

Meena Madhur, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine, has received a 2016 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Award. The award is designed to support “exceptionally creative, early-career investigators who propose innovative, high-impact projects,” according to the NIH.

Madhur, who is also assistant professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, will explore how the human immune system contributes to hypertension (high blood pressure). She is one of 48 investigators to receive the 2016 award, which provides $1.5 million in direct research support over five years.

“[lquote]I thought it was a long shot, but I went for it,” Madhur said. “I am really excited that it worked out.”[/lquote]

Hypertension is a leading cause of global morbidity and mortality from stroke, heart attack, heart failure, vascular disease and chronic kidney disease. In the United States alone, hypertension affects 1 in 3 adults, and that number increases to 2 in 3 by the age of 65.

“Unfortunately, even with all of the current drugs available to treat hypertension, approximately 50 percent of affected individuals still have uncontrolled blood pressure,” Madhur said. “We believe that new therapeutics are needed to target the immune system in this disease.”

Madhur and others have shown in recent years that immune system cells produce factors called cytokines that elevate blood pressure, alter organ function and contribute to potentially fatal end-organ damage. Many of the studies demonstrating a role for immune system cells have been conducted using animal models, and the identity of immune cells contributing to hypertension in humans remains unclear.

With the New Innovator Award, Madhur will profile immune cells in blood samples from people with and without hypertension. She and her colleagues will use a cutting-edge technology called mass cytometry time of flight, which uses antibodies to label cells. Computer analysis that incorporates machine learning then helps sort and visualize the data, producing graphic “islands” of distinct cell populations based on similarity of antibody binding.

“Our goal is to see if there is a unique island that correlates with human hypertension,” Madhur said.

The investigators will also examine the impact of aging and obesity — the two strongest risk factors for developing hypertension — on the immune cell populations.

If they identify a novel subpopulation of immune cells, they will isolate these cells and further characterize them at the molecular level.

“We believe that if we can target these specific immune cell subsets, we would be able to get to the root of the problem and reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with hypertension,” she said. “The goal is to develop a targeted immunotherapy for hypertension without globally suppressing the whole immune system.”

The New Innovator Award is part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, which is supported by the NIH’s Common Fund. The overall program awarded 88 grants this year in four funding categories.

“The program continues to support high-caliber investigators whose ideas stretch the boundaries of our scientific knowledge,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “We welcome the newest cohort of outstanding scientists to the program and look forward to their valuable contributions.”

Madhur is the fifth Vanderbilt scientist to receive a New Innovator Award. She joins Sean Davies, Ph.D., (2007), Melanie Ohi, Ph.D., (2008), Qi Zhang, Ph.D., (2011) and Gregor Neuert, Ph.D., (2014).

The 2016 recipients will be honored in December at the High-Risk, High-Reward Research Symposium at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.