Dr. Karen Fagan, associate professor of medicine and pharmacology and director of the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of South Alabama, said pulmonary hypertension (PH) occurs when the blood pressure in the lungs is too high.

Because it is too high, it’s harder for the heart to pump blood through the lungs, pick up oxygen and go to the left side of the heart and to the rest of the body. This can result in severe shortness of breath, fainting, chest pain, and swelling of the abdomen or legs.

When a patient is referred to Dr. Fagan with possible PH, she said the first step is to determine which kind of PH the patient has.

“The vast majority of people who experience high blood pressure in their lungs have it because they have a problem with their heart or they have low oxygen in the lung,” said Dr. Fagan, who also serves as director of the USA Pulmonary Hypertension Center. “In these cases, you fix the underlying problem and the PH improves or goes away.”

However, Dr. Fagan said that is not the case for patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a form of pulmonary hypertension that is a progressive and ultimately life-shortening disease.

“In these patients, we don’t know what causes their PH,” she said. “Despite our very aggressive therapies, this is a disease that is still progressive and can be fatal.”

Because the cause of PAH is unknown, most of the current treatments target abnormalities in the blood vessels to improve their function. However, the current treatments are limited in their overall effectiveness in restoring completely normal function.

At USA, researchers and clinicians are uniquely involved in translational research – or scientific research that involves the translation of science conducted in a lab to bedside clinical practice – aimed at identifying more effective treatments for PAH.

Dr. Ivan McMurtry, professor of pharmacology and medicine and director of the PAH translational research program at USA, is one basic researcher who is working to better understand the disease.

According to Dr. Fagan, a discovery made by Dr. McMurtry years ago directly led to the most frequently used treatment that is available for patients with PH today.

“To date, we don't know what causes the disease," Dr. McMurtry said. "Current treatments do improve the quality of life for patients, but unfortunately they have a minimal effect on survival rates. This underscores the importance of additional scientific research that is needed - from very basic science to the testing of new drugs and therapies."

Dr. Fagan said the program at USA is actively involved in research to improve the lives of those impacted by pulmonary hypertension.

Drs. Fagan and McMurtry recently gave an overview of pulmonary hypertension at the November Med School Café lecture. To view the lecture in its entirety, click here.

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