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SDSU Heart Institute Receives More Than $9.5 Million for Heart Mitochondria Study

'Energy Center' for Cells Seen as Potential Key for Reducing Heart Attack Damage
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has awarded a prestigious five-year program project grant to the San Diego State University Heart Institute to study how protecting mitochondria can preserve heart cells during a heart attack.

The grant provides nearly $2 million each year for a total of more than $9.5 million. The grant covers four research projects supported by three core facilities. Two research projects are at SDSU, another is at the University of California, San Diego, and the fourth is at The Scripps Research Institute.

"Mitochondria, a cell’s energy center, are key to a heart cell’s survival during a heart attack," said grant director Mark Sussman, Ph.D., SDSU biology professor and member of the SDSU Heart Institute. "When the mitochondria are damaged during a heart attack, it leads to diminished cell function and cell death. Our research will determine the molecular mechanisms needed to enhance mitochondrial and cell survival and maintain cardiac function."

According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is the leading cause of mortality in the United States, with more than 696,000 Americans dying from some form of the disease in 2002.

The project’s main researchers include Sussman; Joan Heller Brown, Ph.D., UCSD pharmacology chair and professor; Dr. Roberta Gottlieb, professor of molecular and experimental medicine of The Scripps Research Institute; and Chris Glembotski, Ph.D., SDSU biology professor and director of the SDSU Heart Institute.

Sussman will study novel "survival signaling cascades" that protect mitochondria from damage. Glembotski will use a proteomics approach to identify new families of proteins that are capable of protecting and maintaining mitochondria. Gottlieb will focus on how heart cells use autophagy, or eating itself to survive, to purge damaged mitochondria. Heller Brown will study how maintaining mitochondrial integrity preserves heart cell integrity and enhances survival.

Program project grants are among the largest and most competitive grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health, to which the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute belongs. They require at least three interrelated research projects that focus several disciplines on investigating a complex biomedical question, bringing together teams to study a specific theme.

"Beyond the critical purpose of advancing our knowledge of heart disease, this grant will greatly enrich the educational experience of our students," said SDSU Provost Nancy Marlin. "Some of the most important student learning occurs outside the classroom—such as in our research labs.

"SDSU is dedicated to providing opportunities for student research and this program project grant is important to our students, including undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students, allowing them to work on cutting-edge research."

Glembotski, who has directed the SDSU Heart Institute since 1997, said receiving this grant represents a culmination of years of work to develop SDSU’s health-related research capabilities. In contrast to grants awarded to individual investigators, a program project grant is awarded to an institution that has achieved national research prominence in a particular research area, and it provides funds for research infrastructure, as well as for investigators.

"When they are funded, program project grants usually go to teaching hospitals and similar medical research organizations," he said. "This grant means the NIH recognizes that SDSU also has the ability to contribute significantly to the fight against the country’s most important health problems."

Glembotski said the SDSU Heart Institute eventually plans to hire additional researchers that can translate results of ongoing research projects into new therapies to fight heart disease.

Sussman said SDSU’s vision for fighting heart disease goes well beyond the grant’s five-year span.

"We’ll continue attempts to renew the grant until we find a way to cure heart disease," he said. "In the short term, we hope to improve upon existing treatments for cardiovascular diseases."

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute plans, conducts and supports research related to the causes, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart, blood vessel, lung and blood diseases. The institute also administers national health education campaigns. For more information on the NHLBI, visit www.nhlbi.nih.gov.

The National Institutes of Health includes 27 institutes and centers and is a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH, visit http://www.nih.gov.

The SDSU Heart Institute is sponsored by SDSU’s College of Sciences and College of Health and Human Services and includes approximately 30 faculty members from a number of health-related disciplines. Its mission is to promote research and teaching programs relating to heart and cardiovascular system performance in health and disease, and to increase awareness of cardiovascular disease and its prevention in the greater San Diego area.

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