The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University $11.5 million to establish a new research program focused on creating advanced nanotechnologies to analyze plaque formation on the molecular level and detect plaque at its early stages. Plaques containing cholesterol and lipids build up during the life of blood vessels. When these plaques become unstable and rupture they can block the vessels, leading to heart attack and stroke.
The multi-disciplinary program, part of NHLBI's Program of Excellence in Nanotechnology (PEN), is headed by Gang Bao, PhD, a professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. The program includes 12 faculty investigators from both institutions and will be based at Emory. It is one of four national PEN awards. The initiative is in accord with the NIH Roadmap's strategy to accelerate progress in medical research through innovative technology and interdisciplinary research.
The program's work will focus primarily on detecting plaque and pinpointing its genetic causes with three types of nanostructured probes - molecular beacons, semiconductor quantum dots and magnetic nanoparticles.
Healthy, undamaged cells lining the vessel wall do not attract platelets or cause a build-up of plaque.
The level of gene expression within a cell can reflect susceptibility to disease. The fluorescence from the beacons will vary with the level of the target genes' expression in each cell, creating a glowing marker if the cell has a detectable level of gene expression that is known to contribute to cardiovascular disease.
"With molecular beacons, we hope to follow the dynamics of gene expression in normal and diseased cells," Bao said. "We can find out how quickly these genes are being turned on and how the expression levels are correlated with factors contributing to early plaque formation."
To complement gene expression studies using molecular beacons, the team will develop quantum-dot nanocrystal probes and use them to study protein molecular signatures of cardiovascular disease. Quantum dot based probes can act as markers for specific proteins and cells and can be used to study protein-protein interactions in live cells or to detect diseased cells. These ultra-sensitive probes may help cardiologists understand the formation of early stage plaques and dramatically improve detection sensitivity.
The program will integrate the biomedical engineering strengths of Georgia Tech and the cardiology expertise of Emory University School of Medicine. The new program is part of the joint Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, established in 1997, and currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
"The synergistic research relationship between Emory and Georgia Tech in engineering and medicine demonstrates the power of discovery that becomes possible when two institutions join their unique yet complementary strengths in an entirely new scientific approach to solving complex problems of medicine," said James W. Wagner, PhD, president of Emory University.
Co-investigators on the project include Emory cardiologists Wayne Alexander, MD, PhD, Kathy Griendling, PhD, David Harrison, MD, Charles Searles and Robert Taylor, MD, and biomedical engineers from Georgia Tech and Emory Don Giddens, PhD, Xiaoping Hu, PhD, Hanjoong Jo, PhD, Niren Murthy, PhD, Shuming Nie, PhD, and Dongmei Wang.