Hearts & Brains: UVM’s Newest COBRE Hits Its Stride at One-Year Anniversary

July 22, 2021 by Jennifer Nachbur

Not only is Vermont small and rural, but it’s also old. Currently, the state is ranked fourth in the nation for the relative number of residents over 65 years old – a whopping nearly 20 percent of Vermont’s population and rising. And with that status comes a disproportionately large share of heart disease, as well as blood vessel diseases and brain circulation problems that can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

(From left to right) VCCBH Project Directors Cheung, Harraz, Koide, and Peters. (Photo: Larner Medical Communications)

Not only is Vermont small and rural, but it’s also old. Currently, the state is ranked fourth in the nation for the relative number of residents over 65 years old – a whopping nearly 20 percent of Vermont’s population and rising. And with that status comes a disproportionately large share of heart disease, as well as blood vessel diseases and brain circulation problems that can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Nearly a year ago, the Vermont Center for Cardiovascular and Brain Health (VCCBH) quietly launched during the pandemic’s stay-at-home order, with little of the typical fanfare surrounding a $12 million-dollar five-year Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) grant. As the Center shifts into year two, the junior investigator projects, educational activities, and team members supporting all aspects of the new research center are hitting their stride and already achieving notable scientific and clinical advances. The more these researchers learn, the closer medicine gets to reducing the impact of these diseases on people, and that’s good news for Vermonters – and the nation.

Co-led by University of Vermont Professor of Medicine Mary Cushman, M.D., M.Sc., and University Distinguished Professor and Chair of Pharmacology Mark Nelson, Ph.D., the center’s support from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a testament to the UVM Larner College of Medicine’s internationally recognized cardiovascular, vascular and neurovascular expertise and contributions to the field. The center celebrated its success at the first VCCBH annual symposium, which took place via Zoom and attracted more than 100 attendees from all over the world on June 1 and 2, 2021. 

"It's been really quite a ride to get this research center launched during the middle of the pandemic,” admitted Cushman during her opening remarks at the event. “We've been incredibly productive and I'm just so happy to have reached this point of having our first symposium."

Joining Nelson and Cushman in welcoming attendees was Vermont’s sole Congressman, Representative Peter Welch, who said that the $12 million-dollar VCCBH grant award was “an extraordinary vote of confidence in the University of Vermont.” He added that he, and Senators Leahy and Sanders were proud of and admired the team’s “commitment to the basic research that is so essential for the well-being of our country.”

UVM President Suresh Garimella also had kind words for the researchers, saying "You are our heroes . . . the kind of work you do is what I respect greatly," and commenting that "UVM's newest COBRE, the VCCBH, marks another key step in UVM's fast-growing research enterprise." 

The VCCBH is the sixth COBRE grant received by UVM’s Larner College of Medicine over the past 23 years. COBRE grants are part of the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which builds research capacity in states that historically have low levels of NIH funding owing to their size. Previously awarded completed COBRE grants at UVM have focused on neuroscience, lung biology and disease, and immunobiology and infectious diseases. In addition to the VCCBH, currently funded COBRE grants at UVM include the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health and Translational Global Infectious Diseases Research Center.

"Brain and heart health are often examined independently, but they are critically intertwined,” said Larner College of Medicine Dean Richard L. Page, M.D., to symposium attendees. “A unique aspect of the Vermont Center for Cardiovascular and Brain Health is that it brings together expertise in both brain and heart health to allow for collaboration and synergy in the research and investigators that it is supporting.” Page pledged the Larner College of Medicine's commitment to both team science and to supporting early career scientists.

Over the past several decades, the college has gained an international reputation for its expertise in cardiovascular disease, stroke, and vascular biology research. The goal of the Center is to expand UVM’s capacity to conduct research that will reduce death and disability from heart disease, stroke – which is the number-one cause of disability in the U.S. – and cognitive impairment. 

"We want this center to convene people from cross-disciplinary backgrounds to solve these health problems for society,” said Cushman. “While it’s health research, it's not just on the health campus that this research needs to be conducted."

The four project directors currently supported by the COBRE represent this cross-disciplinary focus. Three of these investigators were the first speakers at the VCCBH’s June symposium, sharing some of the findings determined in the past year. (Link to a video of these presentations.)

Katharine Cheung, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc., is an assistant professor of medicine and nephrologist who specializes in end-stage kidney disease and geriatric nephrology. Her VCCBH project is titled “Trajectories and Vascular Mechanisms of Cognitive Impairment in Chronic Kidney Disease.” Cheung received her M.D. and M.Sc. degrees from Georgetown University School of Medicine and completed an internship, residency, and chief residency in internal medicine, as well as a fellowship in nephrology, at Stanford University School of Medicine. Her UVM mentors are Michael LaMantia, M.D., Holly and Bob Miller Chair in Memory and Aging, associate professor of medicine and division chief for geriatric medicine, and Cipolla, and her peer mentor is Julie Dumas, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry.

Osama Harraz, Ph.D., assistant professor in pharmacology, is a basic scientist whose research focuses on the control of cerebral blood flow in health and disease, with an overall aim to develop therapeutic approaches for cerebrovascular diseases, including stroke and cognitive impairment. His project, titled "Brain capillary mechanosensation by Piezo1 channels in health and disease," is examining the role of the protein Piezo1 in cerebral blood flow and disease. After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Calgary in Canada, Harraz came to UVM as a postdoctoral fellow in the Nelson Lab in 2015 and joined the faculty in 2020. His UVM mentor is George Wellman, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology, and his peer mentor is Michael Previs, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular physiology and biophysics.

Masayo Koide, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmacology, specializes in research to identify molecular mechanisms causing defects in cerebral blood flow regulation in cardiovascular disease and hypertension. Her project, titled “Crippled Cerebral Blood Flow Regulation in Chronic Hypertension,” is examining whether and how chronic hypertension – which is the leading risk factor for dementia – impacts cerebral blood flow regulation. Koide received a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Shizuoka in Japan and another Ph.D. in medicine from Japan’s Hamamatsu University School of Medicine. She joined UVM in 2005 as a postdoctoral fellow working in the Wellman Lab. Her UVM mentor is Sayamwong “Jom’ Hammack, Ph.D., professor of psychological science, and her peer mentor is Jason Stumpff, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular physiology and biophysics.

Denise Peters, P.T., D.P.T., Ph.D., is an assistant professor of rehabilitation and movement science whose clinical research focuses on neural correlates of motor impairment and recovery with emphasis on walking function, specifically after stroke or spinal cord injury. Her VCCBH project is titled "Investigation of Clinical, Blood, & Neuroimaging Biomarkers as Predictors of Independent Walking Post-Stroke,” which aims to assess feasibility of a larger study and develop methods for telehealth data collection, establish baseline levels of biomarkers and average change over time, and elucidate relationships between baseline levels of biomarkers and walking gains across time in persons after stroke. Prior to joining UVM in 2017, Peters completed a Ph.D. in exercise science and rehabilitation sciences and a Doctorate in Physical Therapy degree from the University of South Carolina. Her UVM mentor is Marilyn Cipolla, Ph.D., professor of neurological sciences, and her peer mentor is Benedek Erdos, M.D., Ph.D., previous Bloomfield Early Career Professor in Cardiovascular Research and assistant professor of pharmacology.

A unique aspect of the VCCBH is its emphasis on team-based, interdisciplinary mentorship from senior mentors and peer mentors who have recently attained independence through the Strategic Mentoring Initiative and Faculty Development Program components of the center. This structure also fosters a pipeline of 27 investigators who can replace project directors as they “graduate” from the center. Overall, participants in the center come from 5 different UVM colleges.

“We’re providing our project directors a high level of support that allows them to conduct research that propels them to be able to perform research independently, with their own funding,” says Nelson, who adds that “Our Pilot Grant Program provides significant resources to foster interdisciplinary programs for junior faculty.”

In addition to Cushman and Nelson, key faculty involved in the center include Neil Zakai, M.D., M.Sc., professor of medicine, and Peter Durda, Ph.D., faculty scientist in pathology and laboratory medicine, who direct the Study Design and Molecular Epidemiology Core; and Todd Clason, M.S., researcher/analyst in pathology and laboratory medicine, who directs the Customized Physiology and Imaging Core.

The five-year grant is supplemented with $6 million in additional funding from UVM. Upon its completion, the Firestone Medical Research Building will serve as the hub for the VCCBH.

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