Thank you to everyone who submitted a pilot award application this year. The Institute received 18 excellent applications and members of the CVRI Executive Committee selected four winners, listed below.  Congratulations to this year’s awardees!

Using MRI to Measure Focal and Diffuse Fibrosis in Patched Cardiac Repair
Robia Pautler, Ph.D. – Molecular Physiology and Biophysics
Jeff Jacot, Ph.D. – Congenital Heart Surgery
Iki Adachi, M.D. –  Congenital Heart Surgery

Developmental Programming of Adult Cardiac Function by Neonatal Nutrition
Marta Fiorotto, Ph.D.  – Pediatrics/ Nutrition 
George Rodney, Ph.D.  – Pediatrics/ Cardiology
George Taffet, M.D. – Medicine-/ Geriatrics

Steroid Receptor Coactivator-1 and Blood Pressure in Females 
Yong Xu, Ph.D. – Pediatrics/ Nutrition
Anilkumar Reddy, Ph.D. – Medicine/ Cardiovascular Sciences

Auto-reactive T Cells in Smokers with Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm and Dissection
Farrah Kheradmand, M.D. – Medicine/ Pulmonary
Scott LeMaire, M.D. – Surgery/ Cardiothoracic Surgery

Each of the four winners will receive $25,000 in unrestricted funding for its research proposal which can be expended through June 30, 2015.

The CVRI Pilot Award program encourages faculty to collaborate with each other to design proposals for cardiovascular research that will likely lead to externally funded grants. This year’s group of awardees have been hard at work to produce some promising data.

The first presentation of the day was from Dr. Robia Pautler, (Molecular Physiology and Biophysics), whose collaboration with Dr. Jeff Jacot (Bioengineering at Rice University) and Dr. Iki Adachi (Surgery) has resulted in a novel method to image cardiac fibrosis. The idea for the project stemmed from the development of Jacot’s model to repair heart tissue with the use of “heart matrix”-derived cardiac patches. Unlike the currently available patches, Jacot’s model is derived from heart tissue and promotes cellular growth. Current commercial patches lead to fibrosis, and thus do not fully restore cardiac tissue health. To test his model, Jacot teamed up with Pautler, who has developed a novel Cardiac Magnetic Resonance Imaging (CMRI) technique. This technique uses a Gadolinium-based contrast agent that can be imaged via MRI. If cardiac tissue is healthy, then the agent will remain in the blood, however, fibrotic hearts trap the agent. Thus, increased levels of the agent in cardiac tissue signifies increased fibrosis. Pautler and her team showed that rats implanted with Jacot’s cardiac patches displayed significantly less cardiac fibrosis than rats implanted with commercial patches. Pautler’s technique could be used to vastly expand the potential of MRI, likely to image inflammation.

Dr. Marta Fiorotto (Pediatrics-Nutrition) was unable to attend the symposium, but fortunately a member of her laboratory, Dr. David Ferguson, was able to present their findings. Fiorotto collaborated with Drs. George Taffet (Medicine/Cardiovascular Sciences) and George Rodney (Molecular Physiology and Biophysics) to explore the role of postnatal nutrition in exercise capacity. This group showed that mice undernourished for the first 21 days after birth had significantly decreased exercise potential than control mice later in life. Undernourished mice were just as willing to partake in exercise, but ran in shorter intervals and slower speeds than control mice. Ferguson explained that undernourished mice had lower exercise potential due to their reduced heart size. The future of this study will look to further explain the role of nutrition in early life on cardiac and skeletal tissue.

Dr. Yong Xu (Pediatrics-Nutrition) teamed with Dr. Anikumar Reddy (Cardiovascular Sciences) to characterize the role of estrogen in blood pressure regulation. Xu explained that estrogen produced in the medial amygdala (MeA) could prevent high blood pressure (hypertension). Female mice underwent ovarectomies to inhibit estrogen production. These mice were susceptible to MeA neuron stress-induced hypertension. However, treatment with estrogen supplements blocked the stress on the neurons and restored blood pressure to healthy levels. Thus, Xu believes that activation of Estrogen Receptor α could be a method to reduce hypertension.

The symposium closed with the fourth Pilot awardee, Dr. Farrah Kheradmand (Pulmonary and Critical Care), whose collaboration with Dr. Scott LeMaire (Cardiothoracic Surgery) produced some interesting findings about the effects of smoking on thoracic aortic aneurysm and dissection (TAA and TAD). It is no secret that smoking is an unhealthy habit that takes a toll on your lungs. Kheradmand explained that smoking increases the number of auto-reactive T-cells, which increase inflammation and subsequently pulmonary tissue damage. However, Kheradmand’s collaboration with LeMaire revealed that smoking can have a similar effect on cardiac tissue, especially the aorta. Their study showed that increased auto-reactive T cell numbers were associated with TAA and TAD. Kheradmand explained that auto-reactive T cells increase the levels of elastin in the extracellular matrix which may lead to TAA or TAD. Increased elastin is consistent with the idea that smokers often have increased wrinkling of the skin, Kheradmand went on to say, increased elastin in the skin causes a more “elastic” structure and promotes wrinkling. Ultimately, this study provides new insight to the dangers of smoking, especially its effect on cardiovascular health.

Clearly, the CVRI Pilot Award program has succeeded in its goal to promote collaboration among faculty, and the result is some valuable, encouraging cardiovascular research.