This week the Heart Research Institute announces the formation of another new research group, the Vascular Complications Group.
This group, headed by Dr Mary Kavurma, will study the role of a pivotal protein called TRAIL. The Vascular Complications group is the third new scientific group to join the Heart Research Institute in 2013, a marked expansion to our research capabilities.
Dr Kavurma’s research, amongst others, implicates TRAIL in a host of debilitating and deadly diseases: these include atherosclerosis, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and metabolic disease.
It is provocative research that suggests that these seemingly disparate diseases might be linked in a fundamental way. If the mechanisms of TRAIL’s action are unveiled, this has great potential for new treatments for cardiovascular disease, amongst others.
TRAIL was only recently identified as an important cellular protein, so there’s a lot of active research trying to uncover its function. Dr Kavurma is at the spearhead of this research: “There’s studies that show that if you’ve had a heart attack and your soluble TRAIL levels are down, you’re likely to die within six years. The type of work that we do is research to understand what TRAIL is doing, why it is important, and why TRAIL levels are down in cardiovascular disease patients,” says Dr Kavurma.
What we know so far: TRAIL is a protein that is manufactured by most cells and organs across the body. It originally drew scientists’ attention because it appeared to play a role in whether cells live or die, which potentially links TRAIL to several diseases: too much cell death can be bad (e.g. degenerative diseases) as can too little (e.g. cancer).
A number of early TRAIL studies have investigated its role in cancer; indeed, cancer therapies targeting this pathway are currently being tested for human clinical trials. But looking at TRAIL as simply a cancer killer belies the protein’s true versatility: “More and more research is coming out suggesting that TRAIL may not necessarily kill cancer cells; it can also promote their growth. It’s very cell-type specific,” says Dr Kavurma. She suggests that in addition to its role in cell death, TRAIL might also have roles in cell survival and growth.
Dr Kavurma’s particular focus is research into TRAIL’s role in cardiovascular disease. She believes that TRAIL is having an anti-inflammatory effect: in cases of TRAIL deficiency “we see massive fatty plaques forming in the arteries, and there’s more inflammatory cells in vulnerable regions,” says Dr Kavurma.
There’s also fewer cells that lend stability to these fatty plaques, which could indicate an accelerated progression of atherosclerosis towards heart attack and stroke.
Understanding TRAIL’s role in the complex development of atherosclerosis will arm us with better tools for detecting and treating heart disease. Dr Kavurma’s research is multidisciplinary, innovative, and dovetails well with the existing labs at the Heart Research Institute. We look forward to telling you more about her research soon.