UNC researchers awarded $8.65 million from National Institute on Aging


Left to right: Drs. Susan Smyth, James Faber and Cam Patterson are seated. Drs. David Clemmons and Marschall Runge are standing.

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CHAPEL HILL A team of scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine has been awarded a federal grant of $8.65 million to investigate the molecular basis of blood vessel aging and its role in the development of vascular disease, including heart attack.

The five-year grant comes from the National Institute on Aging, a component of the National Institutes of Health. New information gleaned from this basic research could offer new treatment strategies for cardiovascular disease, the researchers said. "Aging is a strong predictor of cardiovascular disease," said Dr. Cam Patterson, professor of medicine and director of UNC's Cardiovascular Biology Center. "Eighty percent of people over 80 years old will have some form of CVD. But of all risk factors for cardiovascular disease, aging is the least well understood."

Several medical school faculty, each an expert in a specific cellular molecular pathway, are collaborating in the research. Patterson contributes an expertise in "chaperones" and related cellular molecules that decide the fate of malformed proteins in heart muscle, either fixing them or slating them for destruction.

Dr. Marschall Runge, a cardiovascular researcher, also professor and chair of internal medicine and president of UNC Physicians, studies the role in heart disease of "reactive oxygen species," or free radicals, including how these molecules are involved in DNA damage, gene expression and atherosclerosis.

Dr. David Clemmons, professor of medicine and biochemistry and biophysics, is the grant's principal investigator. He also is director of the endocrinology division in the department of medicine and is recognized as the leading expert internationally in the biology of insulin-like growth factor, IGF-1. In human and animal studies, IGF-1 is known to play a role both in atherosclerosis and aging.

Also key to the research funded by the grant are two School of Medicine laboratories. Dr. Susan Smyth, assistant professor of cardiology, directs a comprehensive, state-of-the-art cardiovascular phenotyping laboratory that examines heart and vascular function. Dr. James Faber, professor of cell and molecular physiology, directs an advanced histology facility to explore the expression of myriad genes that may play important roles in vascular aging.

"We will collaborate in developing animal models that have defects in these pathways or defects in multiple pathways. This will help us get to the individual contribution of each pathway to the process of vascular aging," Patterson said. "We're hoping that the new knowledge gained will provide a basis for intervention strategies, which will be the next phase of this project."

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