The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, has given UofL $9.56 million to form a network of laboratories with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Emory University in Atlanta and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Roberto Bolli, director of UofL’s Institute of Molecular Cardiology and chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, is primary investigator on the five-year grant.

NIH funding of the consortium is a truly transformative event. It is a paradigm shift, and I think this is needed to move the field forward, Bolli said.

At a news conference Feb. 4, Bolli explained that research into cardioprotective therapies — or ways to protect the heart — historically has been conducted in small, isolated studies.

Throughout this time, hundreds of therapies have been developed that have been claimed to limit the size of a heart attack — and the subsequent damage that results from it, but none has advanced to the clinical stage and testing on patients, he said.

Bolli said he approached the NIH about eight years ago and suggested that a better way to develop protective therapies would be to conduct the preclinical research in the same way as clinical research — that is, through rigorous, replicable studies.

Conversations that took place in the intervening years led to this grant, he said.

Through the network, researchers will perform blinded, randomized animal studies to identify drugs that will lessen the damage done to heart muscle in a heart attack. An estimated 1.3 million Americans have a heart attack each year, and their prognosis depends upon how much of the heart is damaged in the attack. Heart muscle damaged during a heart attack is dead tissue that cannot recover.

This is open to any investigator in the United States, any company in the United States, Bolli said. So we’re going to be the standard national network for testing cardioprotective drugs in the country.

We hope that by doing this we will be able to find a drug that really works — that is really reproducibly effective in experimental models, he said. Once we find a drug, the next step will be to take it to a clinical trial, and the likelihood that the drug will work in patients will be much higher because it is truly effective at the experimental level.

Dr. Bolli’s career continues to be distinguished by his efforts to develop innovative solutions for fighting heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, said UofL President James Ramsey. By conceiving, creating and leading this network Dr. Bolli demonstrates daily how the people at the University of Louisville strive to find ways to improve the lives of people in Kentucky and beyond.

Joining Bolli in the research at UofL are Xian-Liang Tang, associate professor of medicine, Yiru Guo, associate professor of medicine, Qianhong Li, assistant professor of medicine, and Steven Jones, associate professor of medicine, all with the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine in the Department of Medicine; and Maiying Kong, associate professor of bioinformatics and biostatistics in the School of Public Health and Information Sciences.

Leading the efforts at the other university centers are Charles Steenbergen at Johns Hopkins, David Lefer and Jakob Vinten-Johansen at Emory, and Rakesh Kukreja at Virginia Commonwealth.