CVRI Viridis Montis Challenge Highlights Early-Career Researchers

March 8, 2022 by Jennifer Nachbur

Cardiac remodeling, chronic kidney disease, brain cell energy generation, hypertension and stroke risk, and socioeconomic status and cardiac rehabilitation outcomes, were the topics presented at the Cardiovascular Research Institute of Vermont’s annual Viridis Montis Early Career Investigator Challenge on February 2, 2022.

Pictured: A screen capture taken during Lucy Pilcher’s presentation via Zoom shows a PowerPoint slide on the left and a thumbnail of Pilcher on the right.

Cardiac remodeling, chronic kidney disease, brain cell energy generation, hypertension and stroke risk, and socioeconomic status and cardiac rehabilitation outcomes, were the topics presented at the Cardiovascular Research Institute (CVRI) of Vermont’s annual Viridis Montis Early Career Investigator Challenge. The event, which highlights top cardiovascular research being conducted by early career investigators from across the University of Vermont (UVM), UVM Larner College of Medicine, and UVM Health Network, took place virtually on February 2, 2022 and was organized by the CVRI Early Career Advisory Committee.

Five finalists were selected from the record number of abstracts submitted for the competition by the abstract review committee—comprised of members of the CVRI Early Career Advisory Committee, Board of Directors, and Distinguished Investigators.

“The finalists not only exceled in the merit-based scientific abstract competition, but also committed to cardiovascular wellness and service,” said CVRI leaders in a communication sent following the competition.

The 2022 finalists included: Ying Loo, Class of 2024 medical student; William Middleton, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Experimental Psychology; Maria Noterman-Soulinthavong, Ph.D., postdoctoral associate in pharmacology; Lucy Pilcher, Ph.D. candidate in the Cellular, Molecular and Biomedical Sciences program; and Samuel Short, Class of 2023 medical student.

More than 50 people, including several international researchers, attended the event, which took place on Zoom and featured an oral presentation by each finalist, as well as questions from an expert panel of local and guest judges.

Cardiac remodeling and heart attack outcomes

“After a heart attack, scar tissue develops in the area that had been cut off from blood flow, the heart walls thin, and the diameter of the heart expands to compensate for having less functional tissue,” which can lead to heart failure, explains first-place winner Pilcher. Her presentation, titled “Loss of Snord116 lncRNA reduces pathological remodeling after myocardial infarction in mice,” described findings that “mice without the expression of Snord116 have significantly better cardiac function and less fibrosis after a heart attack,” says Pilcher. She, her mentor, Jeffrey Spees, Ph.D., professor of medicine, and colleagues are interested in determining how Snord116 changes cardiac remodeling, and developing a therapeutic to improve outcomes after heart attack.

“I'm proud of Lucy and respect how she engages in the translational research process,” says Spees. “I assigned her an exciting, but tricky project with an unusual target molecule, several different transgenic mouse strains to breed, and a dwindling lab budget, and she dove right in. She is the epitome of a curious, promising, and driven early-career scientist."

As the first-place winner, Pilcher received $2500. The judges declared a tie for second place for finalists Maria Noterman-Soulinthavong and Samuel Short, who each received $1000.

Meeting the brain’s energy needs

Noterman-Soulinthavong’s presentation, titled “Food for Thought: Metabolic preferences underlie microvessel control of dynamic brain blood flow,” described research she is conducting in the lab of Mark Nelson, Ph.D., UVM Distinguished Professor and chair of pharmacology, to gain an understanding of how endothelial cells adapt their energy production to keep up with the brain’s demands.

“My preliminary research suggests that endothelial cells generate energy from glucose, an important sugar nutrient, in order to remain active and responsive to neurons’ energy needs,” says Noterman-Soulinthavong. Using a mouse model of disease that possesses impaired communication between neuronal energy need and nutrient delivery, some of the vessels appear to be less able to consume glucose. “This research also may help to clarify why diseases affecting small brain blood vessels occur and help inform therapeutic avenues where there are currently none,” she says.

Predicting risk for chronic kidney disease

“Participating in this research has been an exciting way to tie together what I’ve seen on my clinical rotations with the pathophysiology I learned in the classroom,” says Short, who presented on “Endothelial Dysfunction Markers and Incident Chronic Kidney Disease: Results from a Biracial, Prospective Cohort” during the competition. He studied participants of the longstanding National Institutes of Health--funded REasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) longitudinal study.

Short’s mentor, Katharine Cheung, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine, is a nephrologist who studies chronic kidney disease—a common health problem with incompletely understood risk factors. Their research examined whether dysfunction of endothelial cells that line the inner walls of blood vessels might contribute to risk for chronic kidney disease, says Short. Their finding was the first to demonstrate that biological markers of endothelial dysfunction are risk factors for developing chronic kidney disease.

“Sam is an outstanding young scientist who is on track to make important contributions to the field,” says Cheung, who admits she is hoping his career takes him to nephrology.

Linking hypertension treatment intensity to stroke risk

Timothy Plante, M.D., M.H.S., assistant professor and Bloomfield Early Career Professor of Cardiovascular Research, mentored Ying Loo during her CVRI Summer Research Fellowship. Plante, who was a medical student at UVM, too, describes Loo as a rising star and believes “the opportunity to develop research questions, complete an analysis using statistical software, and present research are key formative experiences in personal and professional development” for a future physician scientist.

Loo, who presented on “Hypertension Severity as Quantified by Hypertension Daily Dose and Risk of Stroke in REGARDS” at the Viridis Montis Challenge, says she has always been interested in cardiovascular disease research.  She also studied participants of the REGARDS longitudinal study to explore the association between hypertension severity and risk of stroke, as well as determine any impact resulting from the intensity of blood pressure medications. Through a compilation of each participant’s blood pressure medication requirements, she and her colleagues were able to determine a “hypertension severity value” using a metric called the Hypertension Daily Dose (HDD) that can accurately quantify hypertension regimen dose intensity by each individual blood pressure agent’s dosage and frequency. “With this data, we were able to estimate the risk of incident stroke based on blood pressure and the intensity of blood pressure medications,” she says.

Cardiac rehab outcomes & socioeconomic status

“We see large discrepancies in the levels of health improvements patients [experience] after a course of cardiac rehabilitation and this is especially true of patients with lower socioeconomic status,” says William Middleton, who presented on “Psychological Deficits Predict Lower Fitness Improvement During Cardiac Rehabilitation” at the competition. Middleton worked with Diann Gaalema, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and associate director of the administration core and site principal investigator for the UVM Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science (TCORS) grant in the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health.

Middleton examined whether two psychological variables, anxiety, and executive function, could account for lower fitness improvement in lower socioeconomic status patients engaged in cardiac rehabilitation. His results showed that both variables predicted lower fitness improvements, and had a significant impact – a finding that “supports future investigation into potential psychological interventions for lower socioeconomic status patients with high levels of anxiety or deficits in executive functions,” he says.

“By examining the effects of anxiety and executive function on fitness improvements, it really drove home for him how these psychosocial factors can impair people's recovery,” says Gaalema.

All finalists in the competition received award plaques to commemorate their accomplishments.

Judges for the competition included: Kara Landry, M.D., Class of 2015 medical alum, former CVRI Early Career Advisory Committee member, and fellow in the Division of Hematology and Oncology; Owen Nadeau, Ph.D., operations administrator, Vermont Center for Cardiovascular and Brain Health; George Osol, Ph.D., professor emeritus of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences and CVRI Distinguished Investigator; Nadia Sutton M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Michigan; and Russell Tracy, Ph.D., professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, UVM Distinguished Professor, and CVRI Distinguished Investigator.

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