Texas A&M Professor Receives $2 Million NIH Grant To Study Exercise Effects On Heart Disease

Dr. Cristine HeapsAccording to the American Heart Association, coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States, with projected annual costs of more than $100 billion in health care expenses and lost productivity.

Dr. Cristine Heaps, an associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Physiology & Pharmacology (VTPP) in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), received a $2 million individual research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the effects of exercise training on coronary artery disease.

“Dr. Heaps, as principal investigator, has assembled a powerful team to determine how exercise affects the heart in disease,” said Dr. Eleanor M. Green, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine in the CVM. “The value and promise of this study are evident. It is notable that this award is one of the largest R01 single PI grants awarded in the CVM’s history.”

“This research is highly interesting, impactful, and clinically relevant because it involves clarifying the mechanisms that underlie beneficial effects of exercise training in the setting of coronary artery disease,” said Dr. Janet Parker, professor emeritus in the Texas A&M College of Medicine’s Department of Medical Physiology.

Past studies have shown that patients who have what is called ischemic heart disease, a reduced blood flow into various regions of the heart, often results from stenosis, a narrowing of the blood vessels.

This study will help to determine how exercise training improves blood flow to the muscle of the heart and, thereby, function in the ischemic heart, which, in turn, aids in getting more blood flow out to the rest of the tissues within the body.

Members included on Heaps’ multidisciplinary team include: Dr. Sonya Gordon, a small animal cardiologist at the CVM, who will determine how the heart is functioning overall, what areas of the heart are getting normal levels of blood flow, and what areas are getting low levels; Dr. Fred Schroeder, a senior professor in VTPP, who will focus on fluorescent imaging of cells of the coronary arteries to determine how molecules are interacting with each other; Dr. Jerry Trzeciakowski, a professor from the Texas A&M Health Science Center, who will provide statistical guidance to the team; and Mr. Jeff Bray, Heaps’ research associate, who has been working with Heaps for 10 years and whose detailed and focused work generated much of the preliminary data necessary to secure funding for the grant.

“The team that Dr. Heaps has assembled is the product of the collaborative relationship between the CVM and the Michael E. DeBakey Institute for Comparative Cardiovascular Science,” said Dr. Larry Suva, VTPP department head. “There are high expectations for this exciting and highly relevant translational research program.”

“The big picture is that we will try to look at the cellular mechanisms that are altered with heart disease and how these mechanisms adapt with exercise training,” Heaps said. “Chronic exercise generates so many positive adaptations in both healthy and diseased hearts; we have only begun to scratch the surface regarding our understanding of the adaptations.”

The scientific community already knows that exercise improves heart function, even in a diseased state; now, Heaps and her team are trying to figure out what mechanisms contribute to that improved function and why.

A lot of preliminary data went into the study, and these data suggest that there are multiple pathways to increase blood flow into the heart, according to Heaps, who is passionate about exercise and heart health.

“I want to reaffirm with people that being active is very important,” she said. “It might not be important for them to understand how exercise improves heart health, but it’s important for those of us in the scientific world to understand the adaptations, so that therapies can be developed and improved. People with or without heart disease will be the recipients of the discovery and the opportunity to improve their heart health.”

Details about the project are available here.


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Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; mpalsa@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)