Experts in Cardiovascular and Neurological Health Convene at UVM

June 18, 2024 by Angela Ferrante

Scientists at Larner College of Medicine exploring the intricate heart-brain connection showcased their findings at the Vermont Center for Cardiovascular and Brain Health (VCCBH) symposium at UVM’s Davis Center.

Vermont Center for Cardiovascular and Brain Health (VCCBH) symposium

Groundbreaking research on migraines, dementia, social determinants of health showcased at the Fourth Annual VCCBH Conference 

At the University of Vermont’s advanced biomedical research center, a team of early-career scientists is exploring the intricate heart-brain connection. These researchers—experts in fields including medicine, epidemiology, chemistry, pharmacology, molecular physiology, biophysics, rehabilitation and movement science, and more—showcased their findings at the Vermont Center for Cardiovascular and Brain Health (VCCBH) symposium June 6–7 at UVM’s Davis Center.

“It is an honor and a tremendous opportunity to learn from all of you here today,” said Robert Larner, M.D., College of Medicine dean Richard L. Page, M.D., addressing the assembly of scientists and doctors, who traveled from various institutions to attend and present. “I am incredibly proud of the groundbreaking work being conducted at this center and the dedication we have invested in it.”

Launched in 2020 with a $12 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE), the projects cover a wide range of heart and brain health issues encompassing the effects of cardiovascular disease on brain motor function, cerebral blood flow, and cognitive decline. The VCCBH funding supports researchers working in labs located in UVM’s Firestone Medical Research Building and across the campus.

A distinctive feature of the VCCBH is its focus on team-based, interdisciplinary mentorship from both senior and peer mentors, which nurtures a cadre of 27 investigators who can succeed project directors as they “graduate” from the center and establish their own independent labs. Co-led by Mark Nelson, Ph.D., University Distinguished Professor and chair of pharmacology, and Mary Cushman, M.D., M.Sc., University Distinguished Professor and vice chair of medicine and professor of pathology and laboratory science, the center aims to expand UVM’s research capacity and support early-career investigators dedicated to cardiovascular and brain health research. In addition, the VCCBH’s pilot grant awards provide a unique funding mechanism, offering early-career scientists $200,000 each to support research into promising projects.

“In less than four years, our center has funded research that has produced 72 articles. We have an astonishing 56 percent success rate in our grant funding proposals,” said Cushman. “All written by early-stage investigators.”

The event opened on Thursday, June 6, with three lectures on population cardiovascular and brain health. In one, Debora Kamin Mukaz, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine, presented her project titled “Cardiovascular Health and Inflammation: Intersectional Impact of Structural Racism, Sexism, and Classism.” Using data pulled from the REasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS)—a national study sponsored by the NIH—she detailed how such factors as race, gender, and socio-economic status intersect to influence both cardiovascular health and inflammation.

“Inflammation is a biological mechanism,” explained Kamin Mukaz. “It links poor cardiovascular health [CVH] to greater cardiovascular disease [CVD] risk. And poor CVH is a driving cause behind CVD.”

Kamin Mukaz’s hypothesis is that intersectional oppressions have independent and joint impact on CVH and inflammation. She aims to prove her theory by determining the intersectional impact of structural racism, sexism, and classism on CVH over 10 years in Black and white men and women, as well as identifying intersectional associations of structural racism, sexism, and classism with inflammatory biomarkers measured in Black and white men and women after 10 years. Kamin Mukaz also referenced the effects of residential segregation, or the geospatial manifestation of structural racism, which separates people into different living areas based on race or ethnicity. Ultimately, her research hopes to inform changes that lead to better prevention measures.

Collage of four people speaking at lecturn
Clockwise from top left: Mansour Gergi, M.D., Nanette K. Wenger, M.D., Adam Sprouse-Blum, M.D., Matthew Caporizzo, Ph.D.

Among the work presented on Friday, June 7, was a project conducted by Assistant Professor of Neurological Sciences Adam Sprouse-Blum, M.D. The project, titled “Dura Mater Pericytes as a Target for Vascular Dysfunction during Migraine,” is a collaboration with Nicholas Klug, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmacology. Migraines affect an estimated 10 percent of people worldwide, occurring most frequently among individuals ages 20 to 50 years, and are about three times more common in women than in men. Often characterized by throbbing pain in one area of the head lasting 4 to 72 hours, along with symptoms such as sensitivity to light or sound, nausea, and vomiting, migraines can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life.

“The headache associated with migraines is currently believed to result from the activation of pain receptors in the dura mater [the protective layer surrounding the brain],” said Sprouse-Blum. “However, the exact location within the dura and the mechanism by which these pain receptors are activated remain significant mysteries in migraine research … In our pilot project, we aim to explore the potential role that dural capillaries—tiny blood vessels within the dura mater—may play in triggering migraine attacks.”

Also on June 7, pilot grant recipient Mansour Gergi, M.D., assistant professor of medicine and UVM Cancer Center member, discussed cardiovascular care in cancer patients. Gergi’s grant supports his research evaluating risks for bleeding and clot formation in cancer patients with cardiovascular disease.

“There is a significant clinical knowledge gap in balancing the risk of bleeding in cancer patients who are also at risk of developing blood clots,” stated Gergi. “People with cardiovascular disease are especially prone to thrombi [blood clot] formation. My research aims to study how a cancer diagnosis affects the care of CVD patients treated with antithrombotics, which are drugs that reduce thrombi formation.”

Gergi hopes to determine if cancer patients are at greater risk for bleeding and if they are being treated appropriately to minimize this risk by comparing outcomes for CVD patients with and without cancer. The goal of his project is to identify cancer-specific risk factors for bleeding, helping clinicians better assess risks and benefits when creating treatment plans for patients with both cancer and CVD.

Following Gergi, Matthew Caporizzo, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, presented work from his pilot grant, titled “The Molecular Underpinnings of Diastolic Dysfunction.” His project aims to develop new tools to help doctors and scientists better understand how stiffening of the heart in obesity and diabetes leads to reduced cardiac performance.

“Patients who are diabetic or obese often exhibit exertional intolerance, or the inability to perform physical activities at the level or duration that would be typical for a person's age and fitness level, arising from an inability of the heart to relax and fill with blood even though it contracts normally,” explained Caporizzo.

Caporizzo’s lab is developing an apparatus that can recreate the working cardio cycle in thin sheets of myocardium—the muscular tissue of the heart—that can identify and pinpoint how specific molecules and drugs impact cardiac performance under varying conditions.

A science keynote address by cardiologist Nanette Wenger, M.D., professor of medicine Emeritus at Emory University, centered on cardiovascular disease in women. Focusing on epidemiology, awareness, access, and delivery of equitable care, Wenger—considered a pioneer in the field as one of the first physicians to focus on coronary heart disease in women—explained how, by better educating all health care providers, disparities in cardiovascular care between men and women, and Black and white individuals, can be decreased.

“The mortality from heart failure is increasing. That will become the new cardiovascular epidemic,” stated Wenger. “In women, especially, cross-collaboration between specialties is needed … Women’s health is not just a medical issue, it is a community issue.”

The symposium also included three poster sessions and a reception at the ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington.

See the VCCBH Symposium schedule

Learn more about the Vermont Center for Cardiovascular and Brain Health.