DALLAS, April 9, 2019 — A research scientist from Cincinnati studying how the heart can repair itself and a research scientist from Houston looking into specific genetic causes of stroke each received $1 million awards from the American Heart Association, the world’s leading voluntary organization focused on heart and brain health and research.
The Association’s 2019 Merit Awards, to be distributed over five years, go to Jeffery D. Molkentin, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and a professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio; and to Dianna M. Milewicz, M.D., Ph.D., the President George H.W. Bush Chair of Cardiovascular Medicine, Director of the Division of Medical Genetics and Vice-Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston McGovern Medical School.
“The merit award program annually recognizes those who bring novel approaches to major research challenges with the potential to produce an unusually high and revolutionary impact on the treatment of heart disease and stroke,” said Ivor J. Benjamin, M.D., president of the American Heart Association and professor and director of the Cardiovascular Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “The work of this year’s recipients has the potential to make a tangible difference in the lives of so many in years to come.”
Molkentin’s research will focus on trying to find genes that can help the heart repair itself after a heart attack, critical to maintaining and improving the heart’s function over a person’s lifetime rather than allowing the progressive development of heart failure.
“After a heart attack, there is a critical loss of cells from the heart, which are referred to as cardiomyocytes, and this loss of cells leaves the heart unable to properly pump blood that can eventually lead a patient into heart failure,” Molkentin said. “We are researching ways of making new cardiomyocytes in the heart by ‘tricking’ surviving cardiomyocytes that surround the injured areas into multiplying and expanding into that area to better restore function. We are trying to find the genes that underlie how cardiomyocytes decide to proliferate and expand.”
Milewicz’s research aims to understand the underlying molecular mechanisms that lead to moyamoya disease, a cause of strokes in children and young adults. Findings from this study have the potential to improve the prevention and treatment of strokes in patients of all ages.
“We identified an alteration in a gene in the human genome that causes strokes in children as young as two years of age, so understanding how a change in this gene leads to such profound changes in the arteries in the brain is important if we ever hope to prevent strokes in these children,” Milewicz said. “Additionally, our studies have the potential to provide insight into what causes changes in the large arteries in the brain that cause strokes in older individuals.”
The American Heart Association has funded more than $4 billion in cardiovascular research since 1949.