Public Release: 

MUSC investigators awarded grant for research to predict and prevent aortic aneurysms

Medical University of South Carolina

Investigators at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) received a $1.46 million grant to study how thoracic aortic aneurysms develop over time and how surgeons might be able to predict and stop development before the aorta ruptures, thereby saving the lives of patients with this disease.

Initially funded by the National Institutes of Health in 2010 as a four-year grant, the study is being led by principal investigator John S. Ikonomidis, M.D., Ph.D., Horace G. Smithy Professor and Chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery. He received notification of renewal for a subsequent four-year period in the amount of $1.46 million.

Thoracic aortic aneurysm (TAA) is a devastating disease of the thoracic aorta, which results in the loss of structural integrity of the aortic vessel wall. In simplest terms, an aortic aneurysm is the bulging of the wall of the aorta, the largest artery in the body that carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the tissues and organs. This bulging weakens the vessel, enhancing the risk for rupture and subsequent death.

Current treatment options consist of surgical reconstruction or a minimally invasive intravascular procedure, in which an artificial tube is inserted through a large vessel in the leg, advanced into the aorta, and opened in a fashion to eliminate the damaged portion of the aorta from the inside out. However, both options have significant limitations that do not address the underlying pathways driving this devastating disease.

According to Ikonomidis, better knowledge of the cellular events that lead to aneurysm formation may reveal novel treatment options for this condition, including region-specific gene therapy and targeted pharmacologic treatments.

"In the initial study, we were able to show how molecules within the wall of the aorta can destroy the aortic wall, causing the aneurysm," said Ikonomidis. "Because there is no cure for this disease, the aim of the renewal NIH-funded study is to investigate these findings and focus on translating the discoveries into potential therapeutics."

The renewal grant is critical to the development of these much-needed therapeutics. According to a 2012 Journal of Cardiac Surgery study co-authored by Ikonomidis, MUSC researcher Jeffrey A. Jones, Ph.D., and North Carolina-based cardiothoracic surgeon Thomas Theruvath, M.D., Ph.D., data have shown that the incidence of aneurysm development doubled between 1982 and 2002. Based on current projections, considering the aging "baby boomer" generation and medical advances increasing longevity, it is likely that the incidence of TAA will continue to increase through the year 2050.

For that reason, the development of novel imaging techniques, biomarker panels, and therapeutic advancements for the prediction and treatment of TAAs remains a critical goal of the research program.

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About MUSC

Founded in 1824 in Charleston, The Medical University of South Carolina is the oldest medical school in the South. Today, MUSC continues the tradition of excellence in education, research, and patient care. MUSC educates and trains more than 3,000 students and residents, and has nearly 13,000 employees, including approximately 1,500 faculty members. As the largest non-federal employer in Charleston, the university and its affiliates have collective annual budgets in excess of $2.2 billion. MUSC operates a 750-bed medical center, which includes a nationally recognized Children's Hospital, the Ashley River Tower (cardiovascular, digestive disease, and surgical oncology), Hollings Cancer Center (a National Cancer Institute designated center) Level I Trauma Center, and Institute of Psychiatry. For more information on academic information or clinical services, visit musc.edu. For more information on hospital patient services, visit muschealth.org.

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