Dr. Alan Daugherty and his team are out to stop some of America's biggest killers.
Daugherty heads the Saha Cardiovascular Research Center, the core of which is a laboratory the size of a football field in one of the University of Kentucky's sprawling new medical buildings on South Limestone.
The center has become an important catalyst for the study of causes, prevention and treatment of heart attack and stroke, the nation's No. 1 and No. 3 killers.
That research will be showcased Friday when about 250 people gather at Lexington Center for the 13th annual Gill Heart Institute Cardiovascular Research Day. The conference seeks to connect researchers, promote the center's work and bring in top speakers.
This year's speakers include Dr. Joseph Loscalzo, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief physician at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Dr. Garret Fitzgerald, director of the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics at the University of Pennsylvania.
Heart disease is Kentucky's biggest health problem, claiming an estimated 30 lives each day. Lifestyle is a big contributor: a fatty diet, lack of exercise, smoking, and high rates of diabetes and obesity.
One key area of research at the Saha Center involves aortic aneurysm — a condition that causes a bulge to develop in a primary blood vessel and eventually burst. The cause of the condition, which primarily affects men older than 55, isn't known, but it ranks as the nation's No. 10 killer.
"The only treatment now is to not get too far away from a vascular surgeon," said Daugherty, an Englishman who has been at UK for 13 years. The goal of his research is a drug therapy that would be cheaper and less risky than surgery.
Daugherty said much of his research involves genetic manipulation of mice to figure out what cells cause this aortic weakness and what can be done to stop it.
Most of the Saha Center's funding this year came from the federal government through nearly $8.2 million in competitive grants from the National Institutes of Health and $600,000 from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Other grants include $271,000 from the American Heart Association and $160,000 from the American Diabetes Association.
"It's important for people to understand that this money doesn't just go to an ivory tower somewhere," Daugherty said. "It is pumped into the local economy through creation of jobs."
Nearly 100 people work at the Saha Center, including 20 core faculty members and many other researchers and physicians doing advanced studies.
Three physician researchers also see patients part-time, "which is pretty unusual," Daugherty said. "But we want our basic science to be well matched to our clinical problems."
For example, Dr. Dennis Bruemmer does basic research into vascular disease and its links to diabetes. He spends about 30 percent of his time seeing diabetic patients at UK's Kentucky Clinic, which helps him understand how the disease plays out in real life.
"We see a lot of the more-complicated patient populations, both with risk factors and complications from those," said Bruemmer, a German who came to UK from the University of California at Los Angeles.
One key to the center's success has been its modern facilities. Many of the sophisticated machines used in this research cost several hundred thousand dollars each "and didn't even exist five years ago," said Dr. Andrew Morris, a researcher.
The 5-year-old building itself is a benefit because the open lab design allows researchers to easily talk and compare notes.
"Chit-chatting can be very helpful," Daugherty said.
"Having an environment where people can interact is important, because breakthroughs often come when you least expect them."