UAB selected as site of American Heart Association’s new Strategically Focused Research Network on hypertension

UAB will receive funding from the AHA over the next four years to complete projects in population health, clinical and basic science, focused on high blood pressure.

NightDay stream imageThe University of Alabama at Birmingham is one of four institutions selected to study high blood pressure as part of the American Heart Association’s new Strategically Focused Research Network on hypertension.

The AHA will support the Strategically Focused Research Network on hypertension with an investment of $15 million over four years, beginning this year.

About 80 million U.S. adults have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, and when left untreated, the condition can have deadly health consequences, according to the AHA.

At the UAB Hypertension Center, an interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Paul Muntner, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology in the UAB School of Public Health, will work on population health, clinical and basic science projects, and initiate a new training program for future hypertension researchers.

Their goal is to change how high blood pressure is diagnosed and treated. There will be a focus on whether nighttime hypertension can be treated through sodium reduction and how salt consumption leads to high blood pressure at night.

Muntner is the director and population science principal investigator. David Calhoun, M.D., professor in the UAB School of Medicine, is the clinical project principal investigator, and Jennifer Pollock, Ph.D., professor in the UAB School of Medicine, is the basic science project principal investigator. Monika Safford, M.D., professor in the UAB School of Medicine, will lead the training program. UAB faculty members David Pollock, Ph.D., Edward Inscho, Ph.D., Martin Young, Ph.D., Suzanne Oparil, M.D., Cora Lewis, M.D., James Shikany, Dr.P.H., Leslie McClure, Ph.D., and Orlando Gutierrez, M.D., are co-investigators in the center. Three investigators from Columbia University, Daichi Shimbo, M.D., Joseph Schwartz, Ph.D., and Andrew Moran, M.D., are partners with the UAB investigators.

“We’re going to be leading projects that involve understanding the prevalence of nighttime hypertension in U.S. adults and the cost of screening at night,” Muntner said. “There will be a randomized, controlled trial to assess whether reducing salt intake reduces blood pressure at night. High salt intake leads to fluid retention, thus we will see if reducing salt in the diet improves symptoms of sleep apnea, which can be caused by excess fluids. The possibility of diet’s improving sleep apnea is one of the very exciting and unique aspects of our research program.”

Muntner says awareness of hypertension and the need for control of blood pressure has increased; however, people are still having hypertension-related outcomes like heart attacks and strokes.

“The mission of the AHA is to reduce cardiovascular disease, and we believe that, to do that, there may be a better way to diagnose and manage blood pressure,” Muntner said.

To achieve this mission, Muntner says, the diagnosis and management of high blood pressure must be transformed in the United States. He notes that, in Europe, blood pressure is monitored outside of the clinic setting to get a patient’s usual blood pressure.

“Many people get nervous at the doctor, and their blood pressure elevates,” Muntner said. “For some, it’s the opposite; they are calm at the doctor’s office, but life stressors cause elevated blood pressure. Similarly, some people have high blood pressure when they sleep even though it’s normal during the day. Currently in the U.S., high blood pressure may not be correctly diagnosed because of these reasons. So we believe that using ambulatory blood pressure monitoring and assessing during the day and night could lead to a better assessment of individual risk for heart attack or stroke.”

Muntner thinks this center can have a big impact in improving the health of Americans, both now and in the future, with a focus on developing the next generation of hypertension researchers.

“We hope to build a pipeline of investigators to study beyond our four-year funding period,” Muntner said. “We believe that, by bringing together scientists from across multiple disciplines, we can build the infrastructure needed to lead to future research projects.”

“Being selected by the AHA as one of four sites comprising the Strategically Focused Research Network on hypertension is a fitting tribute to the work that has been conducted on this condition over the years across the UAB campus,” said Richard B. Marchase, Ph.D., UAB vice president for Research and Economic Development. “We look forward to having the opportunity to continue to contribute to our understanding of this disease and to assist the AHA in its mission to improve the health of our citizens.”

The AHA-funded network will also include investigators from the Medical College of Wisconsin, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and the University of Iowa.