WMU professor receives $416K grant for heart disease research


A chemical engineering professor has been awarded more than $416,800 in funding from the nation’s medical research agency.

Western Michigan University announced James Springstead, a professor in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, received the grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue his research in examining the underlying biological mechanisms in the arteries that lead to heart disease.

Although it is not the first award from the NIH to support research at the university, it is the only one that has been allocated to fund research in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Springstead, who is an assistant professor of chemical and paper engineering, began studying the biological process leading to blockage inside arterial walls as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles after earning his Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 2008.

Springstead’s research examines the mechanism behind how an accumulation of low-density lipoproteins, sometimes referred to as “bad cholesterol,” become oxidized and stimulate inflammation and lesion in the arterial linings.

The accumulation of LDL can eventually lead to heart attacks and strokes, and through understanding how the process is occurring, Springstead said he hopes it will lead to developing novel treatments.

“There are actually proteins within the body that cleave these pro-inflammatory molecules — oxidized phospholipids —  to oxidized fatty acids, and we figured out these oxidized fatty acids actually block the inflammatory process, whereas the oxidized phospholipids stimulate the process,” said Springstead.

“There are enzymes in HDL that actually cleave the oxidized phospholipid, which is causing the inflammation, to an oxidized fatty acid, which is blocking inflammation.”

Springstead said the grant will be allocated to both direct and indirect costs associated with the research project, such as supporting the principal investigator and graduate students, purchasing reagents, chemicals and supplies, and reimbursing the university for utilities and operational fees associated with equipment.

“I really need this funding in order to do this research as we are trying to go through testing our hypotheses on the mechanism behind heart disease,” said Springstead. “It requires a lot of expensive reagents, cells and proteins. The funding itself makes this a possible project.”

He originally applied for an NIH grant shortly after arriving at WMU more than two years ago. After roughly a yearlong process and critiques from a panel of scientists, Springstead said he re-submitted his research project for a second review before being awarded the grant funding.

“They critique the investigator, they critique the institution, the project itself, of course, the research design, and they really go over it with a fine tooth comb to come up with anything they think might be a problem with the research design in particular,” said Springstead.

“It is probably about a 12 or 13 percent acceptance rate for the grant. People don’t usually get awarded the first submission. It was about a year the first time and a year the second time.”

NIH is the largest source of funding for medical research, with more than 80 percent of the agency’s budget allocated to more than 300,000 research personnel at more than 2,500 universities and research institutions, according to NIH. 

Springstead is working collaboratively with two colleagues from UCLA, along with Greg Cavey of the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center and Walt Shaw of Avanti Polar Lipids. Sangderk Lee of the Saha Cardiovascular Research Center of Kentucky and Mete Civelek of the UCLA Atherosclerosis Research Unit, who worked in cardiology at UCLA with Springstead, will lend their expertise in genetics and cell biology.

“While doing my project, I will go to them when I have problems or run things by them, and collaborate with them on papers and other various things relatives to this project,” said Springstead in reference to Civelek and Sangderk.

“Avanti Polar has been trying to help me in synthesizing lipids to use for this project, and there is the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center, which is right next door to Western Michigan University’s engineering building.”

As Springstead moves forward with his research, he is also looking to develop relationships with local companies such as Perrigo and Stryker, and with clinicians from the WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. Due to his joint appointment at the medical school, Springstead has been able to collaborate with a cardiothoracic surgeon in writing grants and potentially developing heart disease and LDL-related projects in the future.

“The medical school is already connected with industry and hospitals. By starting off on the right foot, by starting off with engineering and medicine with a nice bridge between them, I think we can have something really special here and unique,” said Springstead in the press release. “Hopefully, we could develop, or at least be involved in developing, the science behind an important drug.”

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