By Adrienne Sylver
A collaboration between researchers at FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine (HWCOM) and the College of Engineering & Computing (CEC) has resulted in a U.S. patent that could eventually revolutionize how heart disease is treated ― and prevent disease in those most at risk.
More than one in three deaths in the U.S. is attributed to cardiovascular disease. To tackle this significant health problem, Alexander Agoulnik, professor and interim chair of the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at HWCOM, and Josh Hutcheson, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at CEC, have joined forces.
The patent was awarded for their collaborative invention of an anti-calcification composition and the methods they developed to use it to treat and prevent cardiovascular disease. In the past, the researchers have spearheaded separate studies that target the bone-like calcifications that often form in blood vessels and lead to heart attacks and stroke.
This work builds upon the discoveries each of them has made in their respective labs and in collaborative studies with the researchers at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health. Their invention centers on the discovery of small-molecule compounds that can activate a receptor of relaxin, a peptide hormone that has anti-fibrotic effects.
“We know that current treatment methods, such as lipid-lowering medications, lower the risk of a cardiovascular event,” Agoulnik said. “However, they do nothing to get rid of existing pathology, and there are currently no effective pharmacotherapies available to prevent or treat vascular calcifications.”
When calcifications form in the blood vessels, the vessel's walls lose elasticity. As a result, the risk for a cardiovascular event rises because the mineral can contribute to the rupture of atherosclerotic plaque. It’s the leading cause of heart attacks and strokes, the scientists said.
“If calcification is already present in blood vessels, it remains, even in those who are receiving medication,” Hutcheson added. “We now have something that can reverse the pathology. The goal is to return the patient to a normal baseline, or a healthy cardiovascular risk level.”
Their novel materials and methods have applications beyond the coronary arteries. It can also be used in patients who have chronic kidney disease, diabetes and other illnesses that make them more likely to suffer from vascular calcifications throughout the body.
They believe the potential for use is practically limitless because nearly everyone in western society today has some plaque in their vessels by the time they are teenagers, due to genetic factors and lifestyle choices. Additional benefits may occur when combined with other treatments and/or lifestyle changes such as weight loss or smoking cessation.
The two researchers met about five years ago at a Biomolecular Sciences Institute meeting at FIU. The meeting, which allows scientists in different fields to discuss potential collaborations, gave Agoulnik and Hutcheson the opportunity to discuss their shared interests. They decided to move forward together, along with Hooi Hooi Ng, a postdoctoral fellow in Agoulnik’s and Hutcheson’s labs.
Using preclinical mouse models and human cells in vitro, they have proven that activating a relaxin receptor using a small-molecule compound significantly decreases vascular calcifications. The Florida Heart Research Foundation has provided a grant for their research. The next step, they say, is to garner the support of industry partners and move into clinical trials.