July 27, 2001

Barnett dedicated to improving hearts

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Barnett dedicated
to improving hearts

Joey Barnett grew up in rural Indiana. He spent a lot of time on his grandparents’ farm doing what children do best – exploring and discovering.

It’s a trait that has stuck with him.

For as long as he can remember, Barnett, Ph.D., associate professor of Medicine, Pharmacology and Microbiology & Immunology, has liked figuring things out.

“Living in a rural area, you gain an appreciation for nature,” Barnett said. “It’s the most amazing thing. You plant a seed and it grows; every spring cows had calves. I spent a lot of my time trying to figure out the mystery of how life works.

“I loved exploring and discovering things. I really liked trying to figure it all out. I took apart plenty of cars and tractors. But I was always amazed with things that were alive.”

Now, as faculty member at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, he takes that same childhood love and focuses on the development of the heart. His discoveries could guide future treatments for heart defects.

In studying the genes and molecules that form the heart, Barnett’s lab work has most recently focused on a select group of cells in the developing heart that leads to the formation of valves and dividing walls. The findings, which were reported in Science, have particular relevance to the families of children with congenital heart defects.

“One in 100 children are born with congenital heart defects,” Barnett said. “One of the most common defects is a heart murmur, caused by a leaky valve.”

Barnett is an Established Investigator of the American Heart Association. His work with the American Heart Association goes far beyond the lab.

For more than five years, he has been involved in the local AHA with board membership since 1997.

This month, he will take over as president of the local chapter with hopes of advancing his interest in educating children about the heart.

“Most people think of the AHA as a main source for research funding,” Barnett said. “But we do so much more. There are a lot of educational and public awareness programs. We go into the schools with programs like Hoops for Heart and Jump Rope for Heart. It’s fun for the kids and it’s an education component that we can use to teach children to take better care of their hearts.

“One thing I see us doing is increasing our participation with the schools. I’d like to see us more involved in the schools, more far reaching.”

In an effort to be an example for others within the organization, Barnett is very active with the educational mission of the AHA. He recently brought 160 Hume Fogg students onto the Vanderbilt University Medical Center campus to explore the role research plays in heart disease, learn more about cardiovascular disease and talk to both physician and research experts.

Every summer he also holds an in-service for Metro physical education teachers to talk about AHA programs and how AHA educational materials can help students. He also offers to speak to classes as well as bring students into his lab.

Much of Barnett’s interest in the educational mission of the AHA stems also from his love of teaching.

“I’m a scientist because I am excited about learning things,” he said. “But I also enjoy teaching. It is very clear that a large portion of heart disease in adults is preventable. We have to keep educating kids. That means telling them about the big three – watch your diet, exercise and do not smoke.

“That’s what I try to do. There are great therapies and new drugs and we know how to fix injured hearts, but we can still do a much better job of caring for our patient population. If we can prevent disease, then this line of defense must start in grade school.”

Barnett’s interest in cardiovascular issues goes beyond his lab and his goal of raising awareness about the need to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. His involvement stretches to the national level as well. He was recently appointed to a newly commissioned AHA Peer Review Steering Committee. This group is responsible for evaluating the scientific merit of national and affiliate applications for funding.

Most recently he served as chair of the Study Section on Cardiovascular Development, which evaluated all proposals for research submitted for pediatric studies.

“The only reason for being a scientist is because you like it,” he said. “Occasionally, you find things that allow you to look into a new pathway and that might result in a new therapy or perhaps help people look at a problem differently.

“The bottom line is that scientists are like athletes – they like to win, but they really like to play the game. Sure we’d like to win by finding the ultimate answer, but what we really, really enjoy is playing the game and discovering.”

Barnett received his B.S. degree in Biology from the University of Southern Indiana and spent a year as an Undergraduate Research Fellow at Argonne National Laboratories and the University of Chicago. He came to Vanderbilt University as a graduate student and earned his Ph.D. degree in Pharmacology in 1986. He completed his postdoctoral training and served as an instructor in Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1992 as assistant professor of Medicine and Pharmacology.