Justin Grobe receives AHA Innovative Research Grant

Preeclampsia is a life-threatening cardiovascular disorder of late pregnancy, occurring in more than 300,000 pregnancies per year and accounting for 15% of all maternal death in the United States. Currently there are no effective early-pregnancy diagnostic tests, no animal models of the early pregnancy events that lead to preeclampsia, and no effective pharmaceutical interventions for the disorder once established. The only effective therapy currently in use clinically is the premature delivery of the baby, a practice that has remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years.

A collaborative team led by Mark K. Santillan, MD (Obstetrics and Gynecology) and Justin L. Grobe, PhD (Pharmacology), supported through a 2013 pilot grant from the Roy J. Carver Trust at the University of Iowa, recently discovered that the blood-borne hormone “vasopressin” is elevated in the blood of mothers as early as six weeks into a pregnancy that is destined to later develop preeclampsia. The team believes that this hormone can be used to screen pregnant women to identify those that are at the greatest risk for preeclampsia later in their pregnancy, and they hope that further research will clarify molecular targets in this system that can be used to treat preeclampsia pharmacologically.

Drs. Grobe and Santillan have recently been selected to receive an American Heart Association Innovative Research Grant. This program is designed “to support highly innovative, high-risk, high-reward research that could ultimately lead to critical discoveries or major advancements that will accelerate the field of cardiovascular and stroke research.” This is an extremely prestigious award, with only 4% of applications (14 of 350) being selected for funding. The team’s funded project, titled “Vasopressin as an early-pregnancy initiator of preeclampsia,” focuses on the continued development of vasopressin as a diagnostic tool, the use of vasopressin infusions to model preeclampsia in mice, and on understanding the molecular events that mediate preeclampsia in humans.

Other key contributors to this exciting new project include Donna A. Santillan, PhD (Obstetrics and Gynecology, and director of the Maternal Fetal Tissue Bank), Katherine N. Gibson-Corley, DVM, PhD (Pathology), and Gideon K.D. Zamba, PhD (Biostatistics). The team is grateful for the support of the Carver Trust, the Departments of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Pharmacology, and the many pregnant research subjects that have volunteered to participate in these studies.