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As a graduate of the University of South Alabama Basic Medical Sciences doctoral program and an assistant professor of pharmacology at the USA College of Medicine, Dr. Natalie Bauer calls South her “home.”
She leads groundbreaking research on pulmonary hypertension, a progressive disease in which high blood pressure in the lungs leads to right heart failure. Recently, her research led to her first R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health. The $1.5 million four-year grant will allow her to study how circulating factors contribute to pulmonary hypertension.
There are currently no curative treatments for pulmonary hypertension, and the disease affects men, women and children of all ages. The grant will allow Dr. Bauer’s lab to continue studies in models of the disease and begin translating findings to patients.
Dr. Bauer said the circulating factors her lab investigates are called microparticles, or extracellular vesicles. “These vesicles are smaller in diameter than the size of a single hair,” she said. “However, they carry a great deal of information about the cells they come from, such as the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels.” This information ultimately can provide clues about the health of the lung vessels.
Dr. Bauer’s research is some of the first to suggest that the microparticles contribute to damage in the lung blood vessels. “If we can understand the mechanisms of this damage, we can then block the injury and prevent pulmonary hypertension progression and heart failure,” she said.
The current gold standard for identifying patients with pulmonary hypertension is an invasive heart catheterization procedure. This test often comes late for the diagnosis because pulmonary hypertension presents with symptoms similar to more common diseases.
“Our models of pulmonary hypertension allow us to follow this progressive disease from significantly earlier states,” Dr. Bauer said. “We are working toward identifying microparticles circulating in blood that can tell us the health and status of the lung blood vessels earlier in the course of the disease and, hopefully, as an alternative to the invasive procedure.”
In addition, the work Dr. Bauer has already done suggests that microparticles can contribute to the worsening of pulmonary hypertension. By understanding the ways in which microparticles impact the pulmonary circulation, new drug targets can be identified – ultimately leading to the development of better therapies.
Dr. Bauer will collaborate with Dr. Karen Fagan, director of the USA Pulmonary Hypertension Center, to collect samples from patients in the clinic and determine whether the findings in the models are corroborated in patients.
Dr. Bauer said the R01 awards are invaluable for the development of research programs. “Although this is an individual award for the work in my laboratory, this award speaks highly of the advanced scientific research in the USA College of Medicine, the USA Department of Pharmacology and the USA Center for Lung Biology,” she said. “I am proud to be a part of this research community.”
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