UVA Health Awarded $15M for Atherosclerosis Research

September 14, 2022 by Dan McCue
UVA Health Awarded $15M for Atherosclerosis Research
(UVA Health photo)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Researchers at the University of Virginia have been awarded $15 million to advance the understanding of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, and find better ways to treat it. 

A number of diseases linked to atherosclerosis are the leading causes of death in the United States.

The Leducq Foundation, which is dedicated to battling cardiovascular disease and stroke, has funded a total of four projects worldwide for 2022, and two of those involve researchers at UVA Health. 

Leducq was already backing two other projects at UVA Health, bringing UVA’s total number of awards to four.

The foundation awarded $7.5 million to a team, or “network,” led by UVA’s Mete Civelek, Ph.D., and Hester den Ruijter, Ph.D., of University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands. 

Civelek, of UVA’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Center for Public Health Genomics, and his collaborators will investigate important differences in cardiovascular disease in men and women. 

Men are more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes caused by the rupture of fatty plaques that build up in the arteries.

Women, on the other hand, are more likely to suffer heart attacks from what is known as “plaque erosion” — the erosion of protective caps the body builds over the fatty plaques to keep them from dislodging. 

Civelek and his colleagues have already shed important light on what causes these sex differences in plaque formation, including identifying contributing genes and hormones. They plan to build on that work to determine how sex affects atherosclerosis on a molecular level, and why women are more likely to develop symptomatic plaques than are men.

The foundation is also funding a pioneering research project that could advance immunotherapy as a treatment for cardiovascular disease. 

Immunotherapy aims to enhance the power of our immune system to battle disease. In this case, Coleen McNamara, M.D., professor of medicine in UVA’s Cardiovascular Division and the Beirne B. Carter Professor of Immunology, is part of an international team that will seek to use immunotherapy to better treat atherosclerosis.

Immunotherapy has already revolutionized cancer care for many patients with solid tumors, the researchers note. Patients with cancers that were once incurable can now be treated with antibodies that target what are called “inhibitory immune checkpoints” — a system the body uses to regulate its immune response to disease. 

McNamara and her collaborators have identified five such checkpoints that are important in the development of atherosclerosis, and they will seek to direct these checkpoints to reduce harmful inflammatory responses.

The new award from the Leducq Foundation is McNamara’s second. She is also part of an international team selected in 2020 to receive $6.5 million to study the role of immune cells called B cells in cardiovascular disease.

UVA’s fourth Leducq-backed project is an effort by Gary Owens, Ph.D., and collaborators to better understand the role of smooth muscle cells, and other cells, in the formation of atherosclerotic plaques. 

Owens is the director of UVA’s Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center, and his atherosclerosis work could ultimately help researchers develop new and better treatments for the disease.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @DanMcCue

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