The National Institutes of Health has awarded a prestigious Program Project Grant totaling more than $8.5 million over five-years to San Diego State University to better understand how the heart heals and ways stem cells can help the heart repair itself.
“Regenerative medicine using stem cells has changed the way researchers and clinicians are thinking about and trying to treat heart failure,” said Mark Sussman, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of biology at SDSU.
“We now know that the damaged heart attempts to repair itself following injury, but the ability to heal is limited by many factors. Our research program centers on understanding and clearing away these limitations to restore cardiac function and quality of life to patients suffering from the devastating effects of heart failure, which is the No. 1 cause of hospitalization for the elderly."
As the grant’s lead principal investigator, Sussman, who is the chief research scientist of the SDSU Integrated Regenerative Research Institute, will work primarily on understanding how to modify stem cells and the heart to increase regenerative potential.
The research team will use cells that have been isolated from heart failure patients — the very people who would benefit directly from advances in this critical research.
Building on the success of more than a decade of research on this topic at SDSU, the goal of the program is to develop new therapeutic strategies using stem cell-based treatment to regenerate the heart. Advancing these strategies is critical — as current alternatives are costly and include painful transplant surgery for severe heart failure patients.
Stem cell research
According to Sussman, stem cell research today is as important as the first heart transplant — he points out that the advancements made in stem cell research, like transplants, will change the way medicine is practiced.
In the lab’s first five-year Program Project Grant, awarded in 2006 for more than $9.5 million, they were studying how to protect cells in the heart from death in the wake of injury or disease.
“We realized that in addition to losing muscle cells in the heart, the stem cells that are responsible for repairing the damage were dying too. Loss of stem cells and their healing properties takes a bad situation and makes it worse,” Sussman said. “The heart is not only injured but now it also becomes unable to recover and that is how it progresses toward eventual failure.”
The research team realized they had to find a way toward ‘restoring myocardial healing’ — which is the goal and title of the current Program Project Grant. The team has however, come a long way in understanding stem cells in the heart. Advancements in Sussman’s lab have will eventually be incorporated into clinical trials with patients who will be treated with modified stem cells similar to ongoing current studies using regular stem cells.
“The research we are doing takes current approaches to the next level and raises the bar for what will be possible using regenerative medicine to treat heart disease. We are trying to understand why people lose the ability to heal the heart as they age. It’s as if you think about aging as not a passage of time but instead, a loss of ability to heal,” Sussman said. “In our research, we are trying to tell the heart cells to do something they don’t even know they can do — heal quickly — and hopefully, we can figure out how to accelerate the process of healing hearts.”
The grant provides approximately $1.7 million each year for five years to a collaborative team of medical researchers from SDSU and University of California, San Diego.
This renewed Program Project Grant encompasses four distinct but interrelated research projects, two projects located at each institution. Project leads at SDSU include Sussman and Christopher Glembotski, Ph.D., a professor of biology and director of SDSU’s Heart Institute, and at UCSD, Joan Heller Brown, Ph.D., and Asa Gustafsson, Ph.D.
Both undergraduate and graduate students are contributing to critical parts of the project, helping in scientific discovery that will lead to new approaches for treatment of heart disease. The program represents a rare opportunity for SDSU students to gain world class research experience.
“I have been researching in Dr. Sussman’s laboratory for 6 years and have been given the ability to perform cutting-edge science and take part in the development of innovative and novel cell therapies to treat heart disease,” said Pearl Quijada, a doctoral graduate student in the Cell and Molecular Biology Program. “The techniques I have learned have contributed to my success as a graduate student, and I feel fortunate to have Dr. Sussman as a mentor and be conducting research at an institution like San Diego State University.”
History of heart research
San Diego State University has a distinguished history of heart research. In addition to the Integrated Regenerative Research Institute, SDSU is also home to the Donald P. Shiley BioScience Center. Opened in 2006 and named with a $5-million gift made by Darlene Shiley in honor of her late husband, Donald P. Shiley, the inventor of the Bjork-Shiley heart valve, the 33,000 square-foot facility is the only center in the nation focused on the links between infection, inflammation and heart disease.
U-T San Diego: Heart Stem Cell Grant Goes to SDSU