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Agnieszka Balkowiec, M.D., Ph.D.

Photo of Agnieszka Balkowiec, M.D., Ph.D.
Agnieszka Balkowiec, M.D., Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Integrative Biosciences, Oregon Health and Science University School of Dentistry, Portland, Oregon
Neutrophins and Development of Baroreceptor Pathways

Administered by the NHLBI Division of Cardiovascular Sciences, Vascular Biology and Hypertension Branch
FY 2009 Recovery Act Funding: $174,342

Research Focus: Blood pressure is one of the body's fundamental vital signs. When it's not regulated properly, it can lead to the chronic high blood pressure that affects one in three U.S. adults. And when the nerves that help control blood pressure don't develop the way they're supposed to early in life, newborns can suffer serious and even fatal health problems, including sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Oregon Health and Science University neuroscientist Agnieszka Balkowiec, M.D, Ph.D., is studying how the nerves that regulate blood pressure develop around birth and how changes in these nerves cause disease. Her expertise is in nerve cells called baroreceptors, which relay information about the body's blood pressure from blood vessels to the brain stem. Thanks to these status updates, the brain can send out signals to keep blood pressure from spiking or dropping.

Grant Close Up: With funding from the NHLBI, Dr. Balkowiec has found that baroreceptors make a molecule called BDNF (short for brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which travels up the nerves and into the brain. Using a new technique that allows her to study individual nerves in a dish that mimics the environment of a healthy or diseased body, Dr. Balkowiec has seen that raising blood pressure stimulates the nerves to make more BDNF. In turn, BDNF regulates how the brain grows nerves, how nerve cells communicate with each other, and how they send signals back to vessels to raise or lower blood pressure. Other researchers have found that BDNF helps connect nerve cells involved in learning and memory, but Dr. Balkowiec's work is the first to suggest that BDNF plays a role in controlling blood pressure.

Dr. Balkowiec's findings could help scientists better understand how the baroreceptor network forms in infancy and changes in adulthood. Her research could also improve understanding of similar nerves throughout the body that are involved in activities as seemingly unrelated as learning and toothache. This basic knowledge could then help doctors prevent and treat significant public health problems like SIDS and high blood pressure.

"A better understanding of mechanisms underlying normal development is the key to identifying what goes awry in disease and how to correct the problem," said Dr. Balkowiec.

Economic Impact: The Recovery Act grant allowed Dr. Balkowiec to hire an experienced molecular biologist who was going to lose her job in another lab because of lack of funding. The funds also allowed that biologist to take courses that are now helping her prepare her own grant application for high blood pressure research.

The 'Wow' Moment: "I love to talk about our research discoveries to non-scientists or potential future scientists," said Dr. Balkowiec, who works with high school and undergraduate students, science teachers, and clinical residents and fellows. "I volunteer at science fairs and give guest presentations at local schools, introducing kids to neuroscience. I love to hear their 'Wow!' when they are looking at brightly stained neurons through the eyepieces of a microscope, or when they learn how many volts of electricity are generated by the brain and the heart."

Inspiration in Unexpected Places: "One great source of inspiration is those seemingly 'naïve' questions asked by people who are the least experienced and least familiar with our projects. Very often, I come up with new questions while trying to describe the projects in a great detail to new students or collaborators," said Dr. Balkowiec. "However, my best quiet moment for putting new thoughts together and generating ideas is the time when I do microdissections of tiny ganglia, called nodose ganglia, which contain baroreceptor neurons."

One Step at a Time: "So many basic facts about the human body remain unknown that I do not really think about breakthroughs, but rather try to think how to make those small and much-needed steps with the highest efficiency and success rates," said Dr. Balkowiec. "My own past experience, which I always share with my students, shows that the biggest and most surprising discoveries are made by chance, and sometimes as a result of a mistake which may occur during an experiment, despite the greatest care and attention to detail."

By Stephanie Dutchen

Last Updated:August 10, 2010

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