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Two Students in Asmis Lab Win American Heart Association Fellowship

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Author: Charlotte Anthony | Category: Around Campus | June 30, 2016

Nancy Nguyen and Kevin Downs, graduate students in the lab of Dr. Reto Asmis just won competitive American Heart Association predoctoral fellowships.

“Scoring in the top one percentile was a huge achievement for both of them,” said Dr. Asmis. “Having two in the same lab is practically unheard of.”

The American Heart Association predoctoral fellowship helps students initiate careers in cardiovascular and stroke research by providing research assistance and training.

“In the U.S., cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in African Americans, Caucasians, and Hispanics. Health care costs and lost productivity from heart disease results in an estimated $320 billion toll on the economy,” said Nguyen.

Nguyen is currently investigating the effects of the phytochemical ursolic acid as an anti-atherosclerosis treatment.

“Ursolic acid has many reported activities, from inhibiting tumor formation, inhibiting inflammatory pathways to reducing obesity and increasing glucose tolerance in diet induced-obese mice,” she said. “Although ursolic acid has been heavily investigated as an anti-cancer compound, it has more recently been explored for its anti-inflammatory benefits.”

The research shows that ursolic acid protects monocytes from metabolic stress induced dysfunction, a novel mechanism not currently targeted by commercially available cardiovascular disease therapeutics.

"It would be great if ursolic acid could be used as a possible anti-atherosclerosis supplement," Nguyen said. "We want to discover the mechanism of how ursolic acid works and then translate that into a therapeutic."

Similarly, Downs is working to understand mechanisms behind monocyte and macrophage dysfunction in cardiovascular disease and obesity.

“Monocyte and macrophage dysfunction is an underlying theme in cardiovascular disease, obesity and type II diabetes. Alterations in redox signaling and protein thiol modifications induced by metabolic disorders appear to be early events driving this immunological dysfunction and my project focuses on the role of an enzyme normally involved in reversing these alterations in the context of obesity and atherosclerosis. Interestingly, mice that are completely deficient in this enzyme are prone to obesity with age, so it will also be very interesting to determine the impact of monocyte and macrophage dysfunction specifically, towards the development of this phenotype.”

This competitive grant allows them to further investigate the effects of phytochemicals on atherosclerosis, addressing the American Heart Association's mission to improve lives using science based treatments. 

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