PAH scientist wins AHA 2023 Research Achievement Award

Marlene Rabinovitch, MD has investigated PAH for about 40 years

Patricia Inácio, PhD avatar

by Patricia Inácio, PhD |

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A professor of pediatric cardiology at Stanford University School of Medicine will receive the American Heart Association 2023 Research Achievement Award, in recognition of her work in pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH).

Marlene Rabinovitch, MD, will receive the award Nov. 12 during the Presidential Session of the Association’s Scientific Sessions 2023, in Philadelphia Nov. 11-13. Rabinovitch is also head of the cardiopulmonary research laboratory at the Stanford School of Medicine.

“It is indeed an honor to receive this award from the American Heart Association, and I accept it with gratitude for the support of my research program and for fostering the careers of so many of our trainees,” Rabinovitch said in a press release. “When I began my career as a physician scientist, there were virtually no survivors within a few years after being diagnosed with severe pulmonary arterial hypertension. Over the past decades, enormous advances have been made in the treatment of this disease and it has been a privilege to have contributed to these efforts. I am thankful to the Association for elevating research in pulmonary arterial hypertension, for celebrating the many contributions of my creative and perseverant trainees, and of my colleagues, whose research informs and inspires us.”

PAH is marked by narrowed blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lungs. Inflammation is a key contributor to pulmonary vascular remodeling, the disease-driving process wherein structural changes to blood vessels lead to their narrowing.

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Rabinovitch’s research into PAH

Rabinovitch, who has been honored by the Association multiple times, has investigated PAH for about 40 years. Among her team’s efforts is the discovery of neutrophil elastase as a key trigger of the inflammation that underlies PAH. Immune cells called neutrophils release neutrophil elastase, an inflammatory enzyme. Rabinovitch and her team showed that inhibiting the enzyme opens the narrowed lung blood vessels, slowing the progression of PAH. This inhibition also promotes and regenerates undamaged blood vessels.

Efforts are underway for a Phase 2 study to further evaluate the effectiveness of an elastase inhibitor in PAH patients, based on these findings.

Another discovery from her lab was how low doses of tacrolimus (FK506), an immunosuppressant commonly used to prevent organ rejection after a transplant, could help reverse pulmonary blood vessel narrowing in PAH.

Tacrolimus is an activator of BMPR2, a protein that regulates cell growth in the lungs. Mutations in the BMPR2 gene are the main genetic cause of PAH. A Phase 3 trial to continue evaluating the potential of tacrolimus to improve lung blood flow in PAH is being considered. Rabinovitch holds a U.S. patent for using tacrolimus as a PAH treatment.

“It’s my great honor to recognize my Stanford colleague Dr. Marlene Rabinovitch with this year’s Research Achievement Award,” said Joseph C. Wu, MD, PhD, the American Heart Association’s volunteer president for 2023-2024. “Dr. Rabinovitch’s work is focused on effective treatment options for both adults and children with pulmonary arterial hypertension, for which we currently have no cure. Her work around PAH is remarkable and will help to improve survival rates and quality of life for those with PAH. Congratulations, Marlene!”

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