WASHINGTON, D.C., Sept. 17 - Judah Folkman, M.D., is the winner of this year's Novartis Award for Hypertension Research. He is a pioneer in the field of angiogenesis, which is how the body generates new blood vessels. His work has led to a better understanding of how angiogenesis is related to hypertension and how stopping the process when it goes awry is an important goal for new antihypertension treatments.
The American Heart Association's Council for High Blood Pressure Research gives the award at its annual meeting to recognize major research advances. Since 1975, the Novartis Award annually recognizes the most important research contributing to improved treatment and greater understanding of high blood pressure.
A professor of pediatric surgery and professor of cell biology at Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Folkman has dedicated more than three decades to angiogenesis research. The field was started to understand how cancer stimulates its own blood vessel growth, but a chain of discoveries led to a better understanding of how the mechanism of angiogenesis affects blood vessels leading to the heart.
In the early 1970s, Folkman and colleagues were among the first to grow endothelial cells (cells that line the blood vessels) in a dish. Though seemingly insignificant, the discovery was a breakthrough in medicine leading to a better understanding of how endothelial cell growth fosters cancer and heart disease.
Being able to study endothelial cells in a dish led to Folkman and colleagues' discovery of an entire set of molecules that turn off endothelial growth. He was among the researchers to discover a protein named endostatin that inhibits not only blood vessel growth that nourishes cancer but also the growth of atherosclerotic plaque as demonstrated by Karen Moulton, M.D., in Folkman's lab. Maria Rupnick, Ph.D., also in Folkman's lab, showed that angiogenesis inhibitors like endostatin turn off growing endothelial cells in the fat of obese mice, causing the fat to disappear.
"In all these cases, endothelial cell and smooth muscle growth contribute to high blood pressure. Endothelial cells are able to produce molecules that control how much smooth muscle you have in the artery walls. Overgrowth of smooth muscle cells contributes to high blood pressure," Folkman said. His contributions are leading to new treatments for high blood pressure and cancer. "One would think, at first, that there is no connection between cancer and high blood pressure. The connection is angiogenesis, or how small blood vessels grow. Those molecules that make them grow or keep them from growing are used in the wall of the blood vessel for other purposes -- either to prevent high blood pressure or induce it," he said. "The research that we've done in angiogenesis in cancer has provided researchers in hypertension with new molecules and a new understanding of their field. Since 1980, we have discovered 11 angiogenesis inhibitors, and seven of those are in clinical trials."
Now, Folkman and his colleagues are turning their attention to how to prevent angiogenesis from occurring. This could lead to a better understanding of how to prevent high blood pressure, which affects as many as 50 million Americans, age six and older.
Folkman graduated cum laude from Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, and magna cum laude from Harvard Medical School. He completed his surgical residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he served as chief resident in the mid-1960s.
Folkman holds honorary degrees from 12 universities and has received more than 100 awards. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Novartis Award for Hypertension Research is supported by Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp.