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American Heart Association-funded research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute

American Heart Association
Jessica Pfleger (left) and Yassine Sassi joined the faculty at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC this summer. Both brought with them American Heart Association-funded research projects with the potential to lead to new therapies for heart and vascular diseases. Photo courtesy Virginia Tech.

Two scientists who joined the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC this summer each bring with them innovative research projects funded by the American Heart Association.

Jessica Pfleger researches the reason why heart cells under stress become resistant to insulin, which the heart needs to acquire energy. Her study is funded by a Career Development Award from the AHA.

Yassine Sassi studies the role of tiny genetic material molecules called microRNAs in pulmonary arterial hypertension — high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. Sassi received a Transformational Project Award from the AHA for his study.

The AHA is a nonprofit that funds research that helps build careers in science and projects with the potential to translate into medical advancements. Pfleger and Sassi, both assistant professors in the research institute’s Center for Vascular and Heart Research, each believe their research can lead to new therapies for heart disease — the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pfleger explores how metabolism and stress alter gene expression in the heart. She hypothesizes that during heart disease, the expression of genes in heart cells is altered, which causes insulin resistance. Pfleger identified a specific molecule, REDD1, that she believes is responsible for this effect. Her AHA-funded study focuses on identifying REDD1’s role in insulin resistance.

“We believe that REDD1 manipulation could represent a new therapeutic strategy to restore insulin sensitivity in the diabetic heart and improve the health of heart disease patients,” said Pfleger, who is also an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science.

Sassi’s research focuses on pulmonary arterial hypertension, a progressive and often deadly disease affecting the heart and lungs.

“Despite decades of research, the disease remains incurable. New approaches to treating it are desperately needed,” said Sassi, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

He believes microRNAs are involved in changes in the arteries that carry blood from the right side of the heart to the lungs to pick up oxygen, causing high blood pressure.

Sassi identified a microRNA molecule he hypothesizes plays a role in vascular changes that cause pulmonary arterial hypertension. His aim is to determine if inhibiting that molecule could reverse those vascular changes, which could represent a new therapy for the disease.