Vanderbilt Researcher Receives $6M to Study Pulmonary Hypertension, Other Heart Diseases

Magdalena Kegel avatar

by Magdalena Kegel |

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NIH research grant

Dave Merryman, a researcher at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University, has received $6 million to develop new treatments for pulmonary hypertension and other heart diseases. His research focuses on drugs initially intended to treat rheumatoid arthritis, and knowledge from failures of weight-loss drugs.

Merryman, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, is currently developing treatments for heart valve disease and heart failure.

Most of the funding came from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute‘s Emerging Investigator Award. The grant — awarded to only six scientists — gives Merryman and his team $5.3 million over seven years. The second grant of $700,000 is a part of a larger research award that Merryman’s team shares with an international group of researchers studying non-muscle cells in both healthy and sick hearts.

For pulmonary hypertension, the focus is on drugs blocking the serotonin 2B receptor. While serotonin is better known for its effects on the brain and gut, receptors also exist in the heart.

The significance of these receptors emerged in the 1990s, after an unlucky turn of events linked to the weight-loss medication Fen-Phen. The drug was meant to stimulate serotonin 2A receptors, but it also triggered the very similar serotonin 2B receptor, which is present in the lungs and heart. Fen-Phen made heart cells to go haywire — with deadly consequences.

Nevertheless, it led researchers to study the importance of the receptor in heart disease, and drugs that block it have shown promising results in studies of pulmonary hypertension.

Merryman also works on a molecule called cadherin-11, initially explored in rheumatoid arthritis. The factor works by attaching fibroblasts to each other, and contributes to heart failure after a heart attack and other fibrotic processes in the heart.

“We’re studying cardiac fibroblasts, looking at the genetic signature and how changes lead to heart disease,” Merryman said in a press release. “We’re trying to better understand the drivers that lead heart disease.”

Finally, the grants will also support researchers’ attempts to engineer new heart valves that can grow together with the heart in children.

The Emerging Investigator Award differs from most other research grants by funding individual researchers rather than specific projects. In this way, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute hopes to help scientists delve into their fields without being overly concerned about producing fast results for more time-sensitive funding.