The Cardiovascular Branch conducts research on diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels. Specific projects aim to answer clinically relevant questions using methods ranging from molecular level studies to clinical projects in diagnostics, therapeutics, and interventions. The Branch places a strong emphasis on creating an environment where scientists and physician scientists can work together on disease-specific issues using the most appropriate approaches available in the spectrum between the bench and the bedside. This basic research helps fuel scientific discovery that may one day help advance research related to heart, lung, blood, and sleep conditions or other fields.
In the heart, interruption of the blood supply can result in cardiac cell death and irreversible muscle damage. The Laboratory of Cardiac Physiology, led by Dr. Elizabeth Murphy, studies the molecular mechanisms involved in cardiac cell death, as well as the mechanisms that protect the heart against damage. The knowledge gained from these studies may help identify novel therapies to reduce cardiac injury during ischemia and reperfusion. Dr. Murphy’s laboratory is currently examining whether selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs), can mediate cardioprotection in a similar fashion to endogenous estrogen, opening up a possible therapeutic avenue to reduce heart attack damage in women.
The Laboratory of Cardiovascular Biology, led by Dr. Leslie Kennedy, investigates pathways and mechanisms that can be exploited to ultimately benefit patients prone to cardiovascular pathologies.
The gene that encodes the tumor suppressor protein p53, TP53, is one of the most commonly mutated genes in cancer and is a key transcriptional regulator of multiple programs that control cell growth. Earlier work in the Laboratory of Cardiovascular and Cancer Genetics, led by Dr. Paul M. Hwang, revealed that p53 regulates the mitochondria which consume oxygen to produce cellular energy. This link between cancer and mitochondrial energetics has brought Dr. Hwang's research to the intersection of cancer and cardiovascular biology, where he has explored the role of mitochondrial function in normal and abnormal cellular processes. Dr. Hwang is also examining metabolism in patients with Li-Fraumeni syndrome (LFS), a cancer predisposition disorder caused by diverse germ-line mutations in TP53. The goal of Dr. Hwang’s translational work is to provide insights into developing novel strategies for preventing cancer and improving cardiovascular health.
Computed tomography (CT) is a non-invasive advanced imaging test that uses x-rays to make three-dimensional pictures of the body. The Cardiovascular CT Program is focused on the development of and implementation of new imaging techniques to better diagnose heart disease and plan treatment options. This program, led by Dr. Marcus Chen, utilizes state-of-the art scanner hardware, advanced image reconstruction methods, and computational resources with a goal to reduce the overall radiation exposure needed to image a patient and detect cardiovascular disease. These new imaging techniques are not confined to the heart and vascular system, but also are being applied to other parts of the body such as the lung.
Catheterization is a minimally invasive approach to treating cardiovascular disease and uses increasingly sophisticated combinations of catheter tools to maneuver in the vasculature and imaging technologies to track them. In the Laboratory of Cardiovascular Intervention, led by Dr. Robert J. Lederman, the goal is to enhance and expand the capabilities, safety, and effectiveness of catheterization by using real-time magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to enable non-surgical catheter-based treatments for adults and children.
The Echocardiography Laboratory, led by Dr. Vandana Sachdev, performs comprehensive cardiac imaging for NHLBI and all institutes at the NIH Clinical Center. Researchers collaborate in prospective and retrospective cardiovascular phenotyping studies and implement new technologies for detailed assessment of ventricular systolic and diastolic function, valvular abnormalities, and structural heart disease.
The Laboratory of Inflammation and Cardiometabolic Diseases, led by Dr. Nehal Mehta, focuses on the role of innate immunity and inflammation in the development of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Using a trans-disciplinary approach that involves genetic epidemiology, translational medicine, and novel cardiovascular imaging approaches, Dr. Mehta and his team study how inflammation affects insulin resistance, the development of metabolic syndrome, and lipoprotein dysfunction, all of which are risk factors for atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
The Minority Health and Health Disparities Laboratory focuses on health and health care disparities among racial and ethnic minority populations. The three main areas of lab research are: (1) Tobacco use behavior and its relation to other substance use, unhealthy behaviors, migration-related social determinants, chronic stress, and mental health among Latinos of different national heritages; (2) Differential risk of lung cancer in racial and ethnic minority populations, as shown by metabolic biomarkers of nicotine and tobacco-specific carcinogens; and (3) Relationships of migration- and environment-related social determinants of health with chronic diseases, such as diabetes. The Minority Health and Health Disparities Laboratory is led by Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Stable, who is also the director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.
The Laboratory of Mitochondrial Biology and Metabolism, led by Dr. Michael N. Sack, focuses on modifications of proteins that play pivotal roles in metabolism and mitochondrial function to understand how these modifications affect disease risk. The major regulatory proteins being explored in the Sack laboratory include SIRT3 and GCN5L1. The effects of these nutrient- and stress-regulatory proteins on mitochondrial biology and metabolism are explored in the context of disease pathophysiology with studies in both experimental systems with translation to the human subjects. The objective of these studies is to understand how nutrient- and other stress- signaling events cause or exacerbate disease and whether therapeutic interventions can be tested that reverse these pathologies. Current diseases being explored include cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and immune activation.
The primary research interest of the Laboratory of Obesity and Aging Research, led by Dr. Jay H. Chung, is understanding how aging and obesity affect energy metabolism and mitochondrial function and vice versa. The laboratory is elucidating the mechanisms by which aging and obesity causes mitochondrial loss and how mitochondrial dysfunction contributes to aging phenotype, including inflammation. Dr. Chung leads a translational research team seeking to discover novel therapies for diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegeneration and autoimmune diseases by studying how mitochondrial stress affects cellular function.
The broad interest of the Laboratory of Obesity and Metabolic Diseases, led by Dr. Haiming Cao, is to understand the complex regulation of energy metabolism and uncover its significance in the pathogenesis of metabolic disease. The worldwide obesity epidemic—along with an array of obesity-related disorders, particularly diabetes, fatty liver and cardiovascular diseases—has become a major public health concern for the 21st century. The molecular and pathological basis by which obesity induces metabolic disorders, however, remains only partly understood, hampering the development of effective therapies against these debilitating diseases. To address these challenging questions, the lab has recently uncovered that hundreds of long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs), a novel class of RNAs that are produced by 90 percent of the human genome, function as vital regulators of energy metabolism. The lab has also established a humanized mouse model in which over 90 percent of the mouse liver cells are replaced by human hepatocytes, or essentially mice carrying a human liver, and is currently using this powerful model to directly study the pathophysiological significance of lncRNAs in human diseases.
It is safe to say that during the decades in which obesity has become an epidemic in the United States, the human gene pool has not been concomitantly altered. Thus, although biology and heredity do play a role in susceptibility to obesity and obesity-related disorders, the social, behavioral, and environmental contributions cannot be overlooked if effective prevention and treatment strategies are to be designed. The Social Determinants of Obesity and Cardiovascular Risk Laboratory, led by Dr. Tiffany Powell-Wiley, focuses on the social determinants of obesity and obesity-related cardiovascular risk factors that contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in cardiovascular disease. Dr. Powell-Wiley’s hope is that through a better understanding of how socioeconomic, psychosocial, and environmental factors impact obesity as a cardiovascular risk factor, she can develop interventions to reduce obesity and improve cardiovascular health tailored to community-based environments.