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July 13, 2012 - Pulmonary Researchers Participate in Pulmonary Hypertension Association's International Conference

Frequently, scientists and physicians gather at professional conferences around the world to share new ideas for better treatments and to discuss medical advances.

Last month, physicians and researchers from the University of South Alabama attended such a conference – but this one had a unique twist – patients living with the condition being discussed participated in the program. The conference brings together patients, caregivers, researchers, nurses, and physicians for a weekend to learn from one another.

The patients attending the 10th International Conference of the Pulmonary Hypertension Association did not present research findings; rather they volunteered to participate in research projects designed to improve the care available for all patients living with pulmonary hypertension. For many patients it is the first time they may meet others with this disease. For some researchers, it is also the first time where they may meet patients with the illness they are researching.

Pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) is a fatal progressive illness that causes severe shortness of breath and right heart failure. The conference is the largest gathering of PAH patients in the world offering a unique opportunity to researchers to gather data over a weekend that would otherwise take years to accumulate.

Among the nine research projects initiated at the conference, three are being led by pulmonary researchers from USA, who drew more than 200 blood samples from volunteers who are impacted by pulmonary hypertension.

The first project, led by Dr. Donna Cioffi, assistant professor of biochemistry at USA, will use samples to better understand the role of anti-endothelial antibodies in endothelial cell activation in PAH.

Dr. Cioffi, an alum of USA’s Basic Medical Sciences program, is working with USA graduate student Rebecca Morrow in examining circulating antibodies in the blood of PAH patients to determine if they cause changes in the cells of the blood vessels that could promote the development of PAH.

In the second project, Dr. Natalie Bauer, assistant professor of pharmacology at USA, and Dr. Karen Fagan, associate professor of internal medicine and pharmacology, chief of the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine, are working with post-doctoral fellow Dr. Salina Gahrie to examine microparticles in PAH. They are looking at the small, circulating particles to determine if the numbers and types are different in PAH patients and to determine if they might be a biomarker for PAH.

Additionally, Dr. Fagan said that they will determine if these microparticles - that carry a variety of factors that can change cell behavior - promote changes in the lung circulation that might cause PAH.

The third project involves microRNAs in PAH. Principal investigators Dr. William Gerthoffer, chair of biochemistry at USA, and Dr. Fagan, assisted by graduate student Jared McClendon, and post-doctoral fellow Dr. Sachindra Joshi, are examining the small pieces of RNA that can be found in the blood cells of patients with PAH to determine the levels and types of miRNA.

Dr. Fagan said this could ultimately identify miRNAs that are biomarkers for PAH as well as help to understand the potential that changes in miRNAs may play in the development of PAH.

The mission of the Pulmonary Hypertension Association is to find ways to prevent and cure pulmonary hypertension, and to provide hope for the pulmonary hypertension community through support, education, advocacy and awareness. For the USA researchers, the PHA Conference also gave them an opportunity to see the potential impact their research may someday have.

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