Newswise — Steven Poelzing, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, has received a $2.1 million grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health for research to combat the nation’s No. 1 killer — heart disease.

The award is for $533,000 per year for Poelzing’s research program.

Sudden cardiac death in patients with heart failure is a major concern in the United States, Poelzing said. He will lead a research team to investigate how the microscopic spaces surrounding heart cells affect connections called gap junctions, which allow electrical impulses and small molecules to pass between cells.

The research team hypothesizes that the size and nature of the space between cells can determine the risk of sudden cardiac death and, if those spaces can be modulated, such modulation could be a therapeutic agent to protect the health of heart patients.

“This work is producing entirely new insights and providing the basis for new therapeutic platforms for the treatment of ischemic heart disease and the prevention of abnormal electrical rhythms in the heart, including those that can lead to sudden cardiac death,” said Michael J. Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute who also serves as the vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech.

More than 450,000 cases of sudden cardiac death occur in the United States each year and about 80 percent of them stem from abnormal electrical heart rhythms.

The mechanisms that disrupt these vital electrical communications are unknown, although properties of gap junctions, including their locations between neighboring heart muscle cells, known as cardiomyocytes, are critical for maintaining normal patterns of electrical signaling in the heart.

“The work is part of a larger program at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute that is becoming recognized as among the world’s go-to places for fundamental, translational, and applied research on the nature of electrical coupling between cardiomyocytes and how this process is disrupted in heart disease,” Friedlander said.

Poelzing’s co-investigators on the new grant are Rob Gourdie, a professor and director of the research institute’s Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine Research; Rafael Davalos, the L. Preston Wade Professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics in the College of Engineering; and James Smyth, an assistant professor at the institute.

Along with John Chappell, also an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Friedlander said the group is doing paradigm-shifting work on ischemic heart disease and the coronary- and cerebro-vasculature.

“Their individual projects and the resultant synergies of technology and conceptual approaches that emerge in an interdisciplinary institute environment such as that provided by the VTCRI, have substantial momentum in addressing heart disease, the leading cause of death in the world and the United States,” Friedlander said.

“Cardiovascular science at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute is on a great trajectory,” Friedlander said. “Coupled with the strengths and clinical innovations in cardiology and cardiothoracic surgery at Carilion Clinic; the strengths in cardiovascular research across Virginia Tech, including in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine; the College of Science; and the College of Engineering, we are becoming well-positioned to be a national destination for cardiovascular science.”

In addition, Friedlander said cardiac science will be a focus of the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology Campus in the Roanoke Innovation Corridor.

Poelzing’s new $2.1 million award represents the third active major grant to the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

The cardiac group also has active awards from major private foundations in the heart research arena, including the American Heart Association and the Heart Rhythm Society.

“Cardiovascular science is an area of growing ties between Virginia Tech and industry,” Friedlander said. “VTCRI graduate students and postdoctoral associates working in cardiovascular research served as our first interns at the major pharmaceutical company MedImmune this past summer, and we are working to enhance that relationship to provide opportunities for other VT trainees.”

Friedlander said the group has submitted multiple intellectual property filings and was issued five provisional patents in the past year.

In addition to being an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Poelzing is an associate professor with the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, an associate professor of internal medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, and the co-director of Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Program.

Additional resources are available at Virginia Tech News.