By Wendy Sarubbi | June 24, 2013 1:56 pm

Dr. Singla

Dr. Dinender Singla, associate professor in the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, has received his third highly competitive RO1 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grant, worth up to $1.7 million over the next four or five years, will further Dr. Singla’s research into using stem cells to improve the recovery chances of people who have suffered from heart disease.

RO1 or Research Project Grants provide support for health-related research by a sole investigator that addresses a public health need with an innovative approach. Only about 12 percent of new investigator RO1 applications are actually funded, making the grants highly competitive. Dr. Singla’s grants will fund research on injecting stem cells into a heart that has been affected by cell death, oxidative stress and inflammation. His research involves various diseases such as myocardial infarction (heart failure) and/ or atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries.) His previous studies have found that the stem cells can create new heart cells to repair a damaged heart.

At the same time, injected stem cells release growth factors that can reduce fibrosis and inflammation of the heart. One of these factors, bone morpho-genetic protein 7 (BMP7), polarizes monocytes – white blood cells that attack bacteria and viruses – and changes them into M2 Macrophages. These cells, which mean ‘big eaters,’ in Greek, virtually digest cellular debris and pathogens. The RO1 grant will help Dr. Singla investigate further the role of BMP7.

Moreover, Dr. Singla’s additional research also involves the connection between diabetes and inflammation, which makes heart disease a frequent complication of diabetes. The link between the two life-threatening conditions is the focus of his additional work.  “We are already working with diabetes, which is also an inflammatory disease,” he said.

Dr. Singla has devoted nearly 20 years of his scientific career to cardiology research, a labor of love because the disease hits close to home. “I was triggered to do my research because my mother suffered from diabetes and heart issues,” he said. “Because of that I want to work to solve these problems.”

Dr. Singla’s research team includes several Burnett School graduate and undergraduate students. He says many of his students have gone on to medical school, or accepted high-caliber research jobs, even before they graduated.  “The quality of these students and their research is so high that they are immediately placed,” he said.

Dr. Singla’s expertise is also being used on a national level to make decisions on dozens of other grants. In June, he joined several other researchers in Washington D.C. in meeting with the NIH to review research proposals and make recommendations on funding.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease accounts for one in four deaths in the United States. With the latest RO1 grant, Dr. Singla said he is striving to discover more real-world applications for his stem cell research that will improve the recovery and quality of life for those suffering from heart disease. Dr. Deborah German, vice president for medical affairs and dean of the College of Medicine, applauded Dr. Singla’s achievement. “This grant is well-deserved validation of Dr. Singla’s research into heart disease, our nation’s top killer,” she said. “Such research is a cornerstone of academic medicine.”

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