Heart and Stroke Research in Jeopardy

FEATURING: Shobha Ghosh, PhD, Associate Chair for Research, Department of Internal Medicine, Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, Richmond, Virginia

CHASING A KILLER

Dr. Shobha Ghosh is a gifted researcher with 33 years of experience, developing novel strategies for preventing heart disease, particularly atherosclerosis, also known as hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is a killer. It is the leading cause of heart attacks, strokes and other forms of cardiovascular disease, which remains the No. 1 and most costly killer in the United States.i Atherosclerosis may start silently in childhood and symptoms may not become evident until middle age, or even later in life. At that point, real damage may have already occurred.

Atherosclerosis causes are complex, and researchers like Shobha have been working to unlock the mysteries. However, researchers do know that the atherosclerosis process begins when plaque — fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, and debris and calcium – builds up in the inner lining of an artery.

Although there is no definitive answer, many researchers believe that the deadly process starts when the innermost lining of the artery is damaged. Some of the possible culprits include high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, elevated blood pressure, and cigarette smoking.

A PROMISING NEW APPROACH, BUT. . .

The studies Shobha and her staff were undertaking held enormous promise in combatting atherosclerosis and rolling back the mortality and morbidity caused by it. As she explained:

The proposed studies are designed to examine the role of a key liver enzyme that regulates the elimination of cholesterol from the body. Studies over the last three years have clearly demonstrated that increasing this enzyme in the liver reduces atherosclerosis.

Federal funding is the lifeblood of medical research. Shobha’s research into atherosclerosis was first funded through the American Heart Association, and is currently supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Yet, despite approved funding for four years, she has seen a 5.5 percent reduction in her award since the implementation of sequestration.

FORCED TO MAKE TOUGH CHOICES

Shobha thus faced some tough choices:

The budgeted salaries and benefits for the lab personnel working on this project cannot be reduced, and I don’t want them to lose their jobs. Therefore, I have been faced with only one alternative, which is to decrease the scope of the studies.

And sequestration is not the only challenge she faces. The NIH has lost more than 22 percent of its purchasing power over the last decade.ii As Shobha explains, this reduction has affected promising research:

In addition to the effects of sequestration, a large number of outstanding applications that could potentially have a very significant effect on the development of novel therapies are not getting the research funding they need.

PUTTING PROMISING THERAPIES AT RISK

What does all this mean for those at risk for cardiovascular disease? The NIH is awarding fewer grants supporting heart disease research projects and to a dwindling number of applicants. “Established researchers are now forced to forego their lifetime of research which was at the verge of translational discoveries,” said Shobha.

To make matters worse, scientists are leaving the field because of funding instability. Dr. Ghosh has already lost two promising researchers from her lab because, “People cannot continue with such job uncertainty. Both of them are leaving science and finding jobs in other, more stable fields.”

These cuts in NIH research funding have a real world impact on the fight against heart disease and stroke, of which prevention is a major component. As Shobha explained:

At this crucial point, a decrease in funding will slow us down, resulting in delayed development of a potentially novel therapeutic strategy for preventing heart disease. This and similar instances across the nation underscore the need to restore funding for heart disease.

AUTHOR
American Heart Association

SOURCES
i Alan S. Go. et al., “Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2014 Update: A Report from the American Heart Association,” Circulation 128:00-00 (2013): E116 and E225, accessed December 18, 2013, doi:10.1161/01.cir0000441139.02102.80.

ii “Budget Cuts in 2013 Reduced Biomedical Research,” Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, January 21 2014, accessed April 22, 2014. http://www.faseb.org/pdfviewer.aspx?loadthis=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.faseb.org%2FPortals%2F2%2FPDFs%2Fopa%2F2014%2F1.21.14%2520NIH%2520Funding%2520Cuts%25202-pager.pdf.