While aortic disease is frequent in men, it tends to be more severe in women, and researchers do not have a clear understanding of why this is the case. Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Kentucky recently were selected to join the newly formed Strategically Focused Vascular Disease Research Network of the American Heart Association to focus on understanding the pathobiology underlying the differences in aortic disease between men and women.

Since 2014, the American Heart Association has created nine networks that focus on specific areas related to their overall mission and goals for 2020. Baylor and the University of Kentucky were part of a collaborative proposal, University of Kentucky-Baylor College of Medicine Aortopathy Research Center, to join the newest network, which focuses on vascular disease.

“Currently, there is no medication available to reliably prevent aortic disease, but because the disease is so different in men and women, it is likely that they need different treatment approaches,” said Dr. Scott LeMaire, director of research in the division of cardiothoracic surgery, vice-chair for research in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery, and professor of surgery and of molecular physiology and biophysics at Baylor. He added, “We are thrilled to join the University of Kentucky team in studying this important issue, and we look forward to collaborating with other centers across this new network.”

LeMaire, along with Dr. Ying H. Shen, director of the Aortic Disease Research Laboratory and associate professor in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor, will lead the project at Baylor that will focus on determining which differences in X-chromosome gene expression are associated with sex-based differences in ascending aortic aneurysm formation and progression in patients. The award for the project is approximately $250,000 per year for four years, plus funding to support the training of a postdoctoral fellow.

Researchers at Baylor will determine whether cells in the aorta of men and women behave differently, whether the cells in the aorta in men are less resistant to stress than those from women and whether there are differences in aortic disease in men and women related to differences in their X-chromosome genes.

“We will use single-cell transcriptome technology that not only enables us to identify genes that are associated with sex-based differences in disease formation and progression, but also illustrates how these genes are regulated in different cells during disease development. The information will be very useful for developing specific therapeutic targets,” Shen said.

LeMaire and Shen will collaborate with Dr. Rui Chen, associate professor of molecular and human genetics, and Dr. Cristian Coarfa, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology, both at Baylor.

Dr. Alan Daugherty, chair of the department of physiology and director of the Saha Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Kentucky, will serve as the program director and Dr. Nancy Webb, professor of pharmacology and nutritional sciences at the University of Kentucky, will serve as the training director. Daugherty, along with Dr. Lisa Cassis, professor of pharmacology and nutritional sciences, and vice president of research at the University of Kentucky, will lead the other two research projects awarded to the Center.

Along with Baylor and the University of Kentucky, the other centers selected to join the research network include Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Northwestern University and Vanderbilt University.