NEWS | January 29, 2014

UC Davis experts: American Heart Month


UC Davis faculty are available throughout American Heart Month in February for interviews on the detection, treatment and prevention of heart and vascular disease and can discuss groundbreaking research that is leading to new methods of addressing heart failure, arrhythmia, atherosclerosis, valve disease, congenital conditions, coronary artery disease and more.

Clinical care and research

Reginald Low, chief of cardiovascular medicine, is an international leader and innovator in cardiology. He is at the forefront of discovering new treatments for a wide range of conditions — from arrhythmia to aortic stenosis — and has led several investigations of the safety and efficacy of interventional devices and pharmaceuticals for coronary artery disease. A widely respected expert, he often demonstrates advanced practices for cardiologists worldwide and sets standards for cardiac care. Low can speak about the breadth of less-invasive approaches that have revolutionized treatment options for heart disease patients in the past decade, greatly reducing the need for open heart surgery. He can also address what can be expected in the field of cardiology in the next decade.

Heart disease prevention, heart failure treatment

Cardiologist Kathleen Tong assures that heart failure patients have access to a meaningful quality of life and state-of-the-art therapies, including heart transplants and mechanical heart pumps (ventricular assist devices, or VADs) for those with end-stage disease. In addition to leading the Heart Failure and Left Ventricular Assist Device clinical programs at UC Davis, she is medical director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Preventive Cardiology program that helps people make lifestyle changes following a cardiac event. Her research focuses on the effects of home monitoring devices on outcomes for heart failure patients.

Diagnostic technology, congenital heart disease in adults

Sandhya Venugopal is a noninvasive cardiologist and specialist in the use of frontline assessments — the stress test, electrocardiograms and echocardiography — to determine cardiac health. She is passionate about educating students, residents and fellows in all medical fields about the importance of heart disease prevention and knowing when a cardiac specialist should be added to a patient’s health-care team. Known for recognizing the growing need for continuous care for pediatric patients with congenital heart disease as they enter adulthood, she leads an adult congenital heart disease clinic at UC Davis.

Children and heart disease

Mark Parrish, chief of pediatric cardiology, evaluates and treats children with heart disease, including complex congenital defects. His approach to care bridges the many strengths of UC Davis — surgery, nursing, social work, nutrition and critical care — in assuring the best possible outcomes for these fragile patients.

Women and heart disease

Amparo Villablanca launched the nation’s first program dedicated to women’s heart health. Her research focuses on reducing gender-based health disparities and translating laboratory outcomes into novel treatments. She is also actively engaged with women most at risk, including African-American women and Latinas, in providing education and risk-behavior modification to reduce mortality from heart disease. She is a national spokeswoman for The Heart Truth campaign, an initiative of the National Institutes of Health to raise awareness that heart disease is the nation’s leading cause of death for women.

Surgical treatment

Mona Flores is a cardiac surgeon and director of the VAD (ventricular assist device) program, which offers hope for adults with end-stage heart failure. Patients whose symptoms cannot be improved with other medical therapies may be approved for the surgery, which involves implanting a battery-powered device to assist the pumping action of the heart. VADs can restore blood flow, reverse the course of heart failure and drastically improve quality of life.

J. Nilas Young is a recognized expert in surgical treatments for high-risk cardiac patients, including complex aortic surgery, valve repair, bloodless surgery and reoperations. As chief of cardiothoracic surgery, he leads a team that provides compassionate, advanced surgical care for adults and children with diseases of the heart. His research program is investigating ways to improve post-operative patient outcomes, perfect aortic surgical procedures, reduce post-operative complications and determine the potential of microRNAs in regenerating injured heart tissue. In 2012, he was recognized with a World of Children Health Award for establishing the Heart to Heart International Children’s Medical Alliance, an organization that brings lifesaving heart surgery to Russian children.

Endovascular treatment

John Laird, medical director of the UC Davis Vascular Center, is an internationally renowned interventional cardiologist and specialist in endovascular procedures for carotid artery disease, abdominal and thoracic aortic aneurysmal disease, renal artery disease and peripheral artery disease. He is known for leading innovative national clinical trials of the newest stents for treating vascular disease. His latest investigation is testing stem cells as a treatment for advanced peripheral artery disease, an approach that could reduce the need for leg amputations.

Jason Rogers, director of interventional cardiology, specializes in treating conditions that affect the mechanical structure and function of the heart, including holes in the heart (septal defects), narrow valves (valvular stenosis) and leaking valves (valvular regurgitation). In the past, these conditions required open-heart surgery. Today, they are more often treated with catheter-based, minimally invasive approaches. Rogers’ research focuses on advancing less-invasive, percutaneous procedures for both imaging and managing structural heart disease, including a unique clip device to repair severely leaking valves.

Interventional cardiologist Jeffrey Southard is developing a telemedicine program to establish links between UC Davis and physicians in geographic areas with limited access to cardiac specialists. He also established research programs focused on using stem cells to repair disease-damaged heart muscle and evaluating new optical technologies that can bring greater specificity to the diagnosis of atherosclerosis. In 2012, Southard led the team that performed the region’s first transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), a minimally invasive treatment for aortic valve stenosis, and he is leading the regional clinical trial of the next-generation valve.

Cardiac imaging

Thomas Smith is a specialist in advanced imaging for diagnosing and tracking treatment efficacy in heart disease, including echocardiography, computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging. His research interests include echocardiographic guidance of minimally invasive cardiac procedures and the use of computed tomography to evaluate chest pain, valvular heart disease and coronary artery disease.

Biomedical engineering

Katherine Ferrara focuses on using nanoparticles to reduce the progress of cardiovascular disease and improve treatment outcomes following cardiac events. She is currently testing ways to improve gene therapy in cardiovascular disease.

Scott Simon leads a lab that studies atherosclerosis and the role of immune cells in plaque formation by employing microfluidic devices that mimic the flow of cells in blood vessels. Combined with real-time, high-resolution microscopy, the devices allow Simon and his team to view the cellular interactions that lead to narrowed arteries due to plaque buildup and inflammation. In a recent study, he reported using microfluidic "lab on a chip" technology to identify the cells responsible for "directing" plaque migration to arterial walls as well as their preferred points of attachment — discoveries that could lead to new therapies for atherosclerosis in its earliest stages.

Translational science

Donald Bers, chair of the Department of Pharmacology, researches the physiological factors that regulate cardiac contractions and electrical activity, with the goal of identifying treatment targets for heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms — both common causes of death. In 2013, he discovered a novel mechanistic link between high blood glucose and heart disease, which helped explain why diabetes is a significant independent risk factor for heart disease and paved the way for new therapeutic strategies that protect the heart health of diabetics. By using unique research models, focusing on quantitative techniques and synthesizing results across biological studies, his work over the past 30 years has dramatically expanded the understanding of heart-muscle dynamics. In 2012, Bers was recognized as Distinguished Scientist by the American Heart Association.

Lars Berglund, director of the UC Davis Clinical and Translational Science Center, is a specialist in the biochemical process that transports fats through cells and its effects on cardiovascular health. His research has identified distinctions in the onset and progress of heart disease among different populations with the ultimate goal of tailoring therapies to meet patients’ specific needs. In 2010, for instance, he discovered that inflammation may be an important predictor of heart disease for African Americans. He is also an expert in the cardiovascular risks of long-term use of antiretroviral therapies used to treat HIV/AIDS.

Anne A. Knowlton is a leading investigator of the relationship between estrogen and heart health. Estrogen is often considered a universal culprit in heart disease among women, but Knowlton discovered that estrogen replacement during the earliest stages of menopause could potentially prevent inflammation and protect cardiac function. She also researches the cellular processes involved in cardiac injury, including the detrimental role of heat-shock protein 60 on heart failure.

Molecular scientist David Segal investigates how changes in single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs (pronounced "snips") — tiny variations in the sequence of DNA — increase the risk of disease. Segal received a prestigious Keck Foundation grant to assess the impact of various SNP sequences on endothelial cells, which form the interface between circulating blood and vascular tissues, and to define the changes that make these cells vulnerable to plaques that cause coronary artery disease.