Public Release: 

Southern 'stroke belt' study initiates nationwide study

Vermont risk factor specialists to play a key role

University of Vermont

Burlington, Vt. -- A five-year study that will examine possible causes for the higher incidence of stroke in southern states and in African-Americans compared to whites will rely on cardiovascular risk factor specialists at the University of Vermont (UVM) College of Medicine for analyses of blood from an estimated 30,000 people. On Wednesday, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), which is leading the study, announced receipt of a $28 million National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke grant to conduct the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke - or REGARDS - study.

The study aims to determine why African Americans have a 50 percent higher rate of stroke death compared to whites and why stroke incidence is higher in the southeast compared to the rest of the country. Based on their analysis of blood samples, UVM scientists will be helping to identify which known risk factors for stroke - and maybe some not-yet-known factors - are consistent among stroke victims or are unique to African Americans compared to whites.

UVM is expertly equipped to handle what Mary Cushman, M.D., UVM associate professor of medicine and pathology, estimates could be as many as 130 blood samples per day once the study is up and running at full capacity. Cushman, who will lead the central laboratory for the REGARDS study, and her colleagues at UVM's Laboratory for Clinical Biochemistry Research currently function as the central analysis lab for such large-scale, national studies as the National Institutes of Health-funded Multi-Ethnic Study on Atherosclerosis, which is examining risk factors for atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries," and Cardiovascular Health Study, which is looking at risk factors for heart disease and stroke in older Americans.

"What's especially wonderful about the REGARDS study is that it will create a biological specimen bank that will provide the foundation for detailed study on risk factors for stroke," said Cushman. "This will help us get closer to identifying not only the root causes for stroke, but for other related diseases as well."

Each of the 30,000 REGARDS participants will have blood samples taken in their homes, which will then be shipped to the UVM lab. When received, samples will be "spun" in a high-speed centrifuge, a machine which separates cells in the blood from the liquid needed for analysis. Once processing is complete, each blood sample will be divided and stored to allow for multiple types of tests, and information about each sample will be scanned into a computer database. Some samples will be analyzed and some will be stored for future studies in one of 18 giant freezers, which can hold a total of 390,000 samples. Some of the initial analyses include cholesterol, blood sugar, kidney function, and C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation that has been associated with increased risk for heart disease. In later analyses, the researchers will look at blood-clotting factors, DNA markers, vitamin levels, and other markers of inflammation.

"Our role as the central laboratory for looking at risk factors is a testimony to the caliber of UVM's expertise in this area, as well as the institution's commitment to working towards the development of effective treatments for stroke and heart disease," said Joseph Warshaw, M.D., dean of the College of Medicine.

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For more information about the REGARDS study, visit www.uab.edu/news.

If you are between the ages of 55 and 64 and are interested in learning more about the REGARDS study, call 1-866-463-6667.

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