NIH Funds Biomedical Research

January 8, 2003

Heather Heilman

Tulane's Hypertension and Renal Center of Excellence, which opened in 2002 with a $3.4 million grant from the Louisiana State Health Excellence Fund, recently received a big boost in the form of $10.8 million over five years from the National Institutes of Health.

The new grant will establish the hypertension center as a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE), the only one of its kind in the region. The money will be used to help junior investigators at the center develop new research programs and become competitive for funding as independent investigators, while building Tulane's strength in kidney and hypertension research.

"At Tulane, we have the largest group of hypertension expert in the region," said Gabriel Navar, principal investigator and co-director of the center. "Funding like this supports the scientists of the future as they begin to contribute to the fight against these complicated diseases, and demonstrates that we have a nationally competitive research program."

It's appropriate that this is an area of growing strength at Tulane, since Louisiana is the epicenter of a growing national epidemic of hypertension and kidney disease. The Southeast has the highest prevalence of hypertension and the greatest incidence of hypertensive complications compared with other regions in the country, as well as the highest incidence of stroke, coronary artery disease, and end-stage kidney disease.

Since the grant invests in researchers who are at the beginning of their careers, it offers something of a guarantee that the center will continue to grow in stature. It will help make Tulane attractive to promising young scientists and assures the university's future as the site of groundbreaking research in the field.

"If the NIH is going to give me money to do a study, they need to know I have a track record," said Paul Muntner, assistant professor of epidemiology and one of five young researchers who will benefit from the grant. "This provides the opportunity to get that track record."

He was attracted to Tulane because of the reputations of Jiang He, associate professor of epidemiology, and of Paul Whelton, epidemiologist and senior vice president of the Health Sciences Center. Muntner arrived here two years ago after completing his doctorate at Johns Hopkins.

The others who will initially be supported by the grant are physiologists Lisa Harrison-Bernard, research assistant professor of physiology, and Fruzsina Johnson, a postdoctoral fellow in physiology; Albert Dreisbach, assistant professor of medicine/nephrology; and Igor Iosipiv, assistant professor of nephrology.

Each researcher will work with a mentor, someone who is an established NIH independent investigator. Funds also will be used to buy equipment and renovate lab space for the group. As investigators attain independent funding, they will move out of the COBRE group, allowing new researchers to take their place. In fact, Harrison-Bernard has just received word that her own grant application has been approved, so there will soon be room for another investigator to join the group.

"If the success of COBRE is in new investigators getting independently funded by the NIH, we're already successful," said Harrison-Bernard, for whom the two grants represent a particular triumph. She's worked to build a career as a scientist while raising a family in her hometown of New Orleans, receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of New Orleans and doing her graduate and postgraduate work at Tulane.

She studies the effects of angiotensin in the renal microvascular system of genetically altered mice, looking at gene regulation and the ways the system is altered when angiotensin is activated or depressed. It's basic research with the ultimate goal of developing drugs to protect the function of the kidney.

Muntner's work represents the opposite end of the research spectrum. Although studies show that physical activity is associated with reduced blood pressure, there's a shortage of data on blacks, particularly black women. Yet blacks are 50 percent more likely to have hypertension than whites. So Muntner decided he'd like to help fill in the gap.

He will recruit 130 sedentary black women with hypertension. Half of them will participate in monitored physical activity three times a week for 12 weeks, while the other half remains sedentary. Then the two groups will be compared for blood pressure, cholesterol and cardiovascular fitness.

"My background is in quantitative work, so this is really useful to me in giving me the opportunity to work directly with patients," he said. He next wants to study the ways in which physicians might be able to motivate black women to exercise.

Heather Heilman can be reached at

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