University of Virginia health system wins $5.5 million grant to help detect atherosclerosis

Charlottesville, Va., September 26, 2006 -- The National Institutes of Health has awarded a $5.5 million grant over five years to the University of Virginia Health System to develop new, high tech imaging methods to detect and treat atherosclerosis, a disease where plaque builds up in the inner lining of the arteries leading to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

About one in every three adult men and women in the United States has some form of cardiovascular disease and it is the number one cause of death, according to the American Heart Association, one reason it is so important to treat risk factors early before a person's life is in real danger.

The NIH funds will help UVa researchers develop new contrast agents that one day may be used during simple ultrasound examinations to detect and treat people with atherosclerotic plaque. Contrast agents are compounds that improve the visibility of the body's internal structures in an ultrasound or x-ray image. The research promises to help people save money on their health care bill since ultrasound is the most economical way to image inside the body.

The agents being developed at UVa to image atherosclerosis are currently being tested in animals. The tiny contrast agents are smaller than a typical blood cell and look like miniscule bubbles, seen only under a microscope, with octopus-like arms that help them stick to the artery lining. They are modeled on the body's own leukocytes, white blood cells that adhere remarkably well to the blood vessel wall under flow, a necessary step to allow them to fight off infection.

"Our research has found that manufacturing contrast agents that have similar adhesion properties as leukocytes allows for better adhesion under flow, promising better detection of plaque in the arteries," said Dr. Klaus Ley, professor of biomedical engineering, molecular physiology and biological physics and director of the Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center at UVa. "Currently, there is no reliable method to detect vulnerable plaque. But we do know the properties of the molecules that are found on the surface of plaques, which would make a superb target for these agents now under development."

The scientific aims of the NIH grant are to define the biomechanics of leukocyte adhesion under conditions that replicate the body's blood flow; determine how to make these contrast agents work best in the body; find out how the agents can be targeted to specific molecules involved in atherosclerosis and apply the design to the ultrasound imaging of plaque.

"This grant is an important part of the NIH roadmap," Ley said. "It is one example of translational research that will bring laboratory knowledge to a patients' bedside." The grant to UVa is also multidisciplinary, involving scientists from a broad range of backgrounds such as bioengineering, physiology, electrical engineering and chemistry.

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Other UVa scientists performing this research are: Michael Lawrence, associate professor of biomedical engineering; William Guilford, associate professor of biomedical engineering; Alexander Klibanov, associate professor of cardiovascular medicine and John Hossack, associate professor of biomedical engineering. Richard Cummings, chairman of the biochemistry department at Emory University, is also involved in the grant.

Ley and Klibanov own stock in a Charlottesville-based biotech company, Targeson LLC, that manufactures ultrasound contrast agents.


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