DALLAS, Feb. 14, 2020 — A Newark, N.J., researcher studying a new way to prevent heart injury and eventual heart failure and a Houston physician-scientist working to better understand and prevent stroke risk transmission from mother to child are the most recent American Heart Association Merit Award recipients. Each researcher will receive $1 million in funding from the Association, the world’s leading voluntary organization focused on heart and brain health and research.

Junichi Sadoshima, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of cell biology and molecular medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, and Louise D. McCullough, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of neurology at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston will receive $200,000 a year for five years.

The American Heart Association’s annual Merit Award aims to fuel highly promising, novel research that has the potential to move cardiovascular science forward.

“With the Merit Award, we are searching for researchers with fresh ideas and the potential to make a huge impact, which is in line with the American Heart Association’s mission to be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives,” said American Heart Association President Robert Harrington, M.D., FAHA, an interventional cardiologist and chair of the department of medicine at Stanford University in California. “These exceptional scientists are asking the questions that haven’t been asked and are looking for answers in what we may consider to be nontraditional places. In the end, their work could transform cardiovascular and stroke science.”

Sadoshima’s research addresses the major public health problem that many people who have a heart attack or stroke die from heart failure or other complications within a few years after their first event. He and his colleagues are studying how inhibiting a previously uncharacterized type of cell death in the heart might prevent weakening of the heart and brain after a heart attack or stroke.

“Just like we replace broken or worn-out parts in our cars to make them run better, our cells discard old or broken materials every day through a process called autophagy. While autophagy is a fundamentally important mechanism to maintain the function in the heart, the process can sometimes go awry and actually promote cellular suicide. This cell death triggered by excessive autophagy is termed autosis,” Sadoshima said. “Our goal with this award is to develop treatment to make the heart stronger when patients have a heart attack or stroke by understanding how autosis is stimulated and how it kills heart and brain cells.”

Sadoshima said focusing on this previously uncharacterized form of cell death in the heart may have a significant impact on the future treatment of patients with reduced blood supply to the heart and brain.

McCullough’s research also looks at a big public health issue, stroke, in a new way.

“It has been known for some time that health problems that occur during pregnancy, such a mother’s high blood pressure, obesity or diabetes, can cause changes leading to obesity and hypertension in the child she’s carrying. Initially, it was thought that a lot of this was genetic but there also are epigenetic factors — outside factors that can change the genes to increase risk,” McCullough said.

Prior research led McCullough and her colleagues to believe the mother’s microbiome, the collection of microorganisms that reside in the gastrointestinal tract and are passed during childbirth to the child, might modify genes and increase later stroke risk in offspring. The health of the microbiome tends to change with age, becoming more likely to cause inflammation.

“We’re studying whether a mother’s unhealthy microbiome can be manipulated and improved with diet or supplements, perhaps, to reduce stroke risk in her offspring,” she said. “If successful, these findings could have huge health ramifications for many generations to come.”

Funding research such as the annual merit awards is a cornerstone of the American Heart Association’s lifesaving mission. The Association has funded more than $4.6 billion in cardiovascular research since 1949, making it the single largest non-government supporter of heart and brain health research in the U.S.

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The American Heart Association receives funding primarily from individuals; foundations and corporations (including pharmaceutical, device manufacturers and other companies) also make donations and fund specific association programs and events. The Association has strict policies to prevent these relationships from influencing the science content. Revenues from pharmaceutical and device corporations and health insurance providers are available at https://www.heart.org/en/about-us/aha-financial-information.

About the American Heart Association

The American Heart Association is a leading force for a world of longer, healthier lives. With nearly a century of lifesaving work, the Dallas-based association is dedicated to ensuring equitable health for all. We are a trustworthy source empowering people to improve their heart health, brain health and well-being. We collaborate with numerous organizations and millions of volunteers to fund innovative research, advocate for stronger public health policies, and share lifesaving resources and information. Connect with us on heart.org, Facebook, Twitter or by calling 1-800-AHA-USA1.

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