During February, Americans continued to face the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we celebrated heart month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calculates that each day in February, 3,049 Americans died due to COVID-19, while an additional 2,068 died from cardiovascular disease. And we are learning more about the connections between COVID-19 and heart disease.
While these data are sobering and take a toll on our emotional well-being, there is reason to be optimistic. But that requires us to utilize two of our most precious human characteristics – the ability to value and plan for the future, and our capacity to recall the past and learn from it.
Here in Roanoke at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion, we are fortunate to have one of the world’s leading research groups studying these characteristics. Our research team, led by Dr. Warren Bickel, elucidates how we make decisions that value or conversely, discount the future. For example, Bickel and his colleagues have applied their findings from the lab to help people with substance use disorders hone the ability to make healthier decisions by recalling and visualizing future goals. So how can such future valuation help us prevent a repeat of last year’s 1.3 million cumulative deaths from COVID-19 and cardiovascular disease?
We have already learned that certain actions have dramatic impacts on our health. Everyday choices such as not smoking, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and managing high blood pressure can reduce but not eliminate deaths from cardiovascular disease. Likewise, wearing masks, appropriate distancing, avoiding indoor gatherings, hand-washing, and getting vaccinated can reduce – but also not completely eliminate COVID-19 illness.
But how do we go beyond just reducing the incidence of these illnesses to valuing and protecting the health and lives of those who develop them anyway? People may become ill with COVID-19 or succumb to cardiovascular disease due to factors beyond their control, such as their individual genetics, secondhand smoke, socio-economic status, racial-ethnic identities, early life experiences, viral mutations, or contact with community members not wearing masks.
The answer is to support biomedical research today! Scientific innovation has brought us many lifesaving advances such as CPR, heart valve replacements, blood pressure medications, early genetic diagnosis, rapid identification of the genetic sequence of a new virus, PCR testing, monoclonal antibody treatments, and mRNA vaccine technology, to name a few. If we truly value our own futures and those of our children and grandchildren over the immediate gratification of today, research provides the path forward.
Here in Roanoke, we are betting on our community’s future by investing in research. Virginia Tech has recently recruited four new world-class research teams to our cardiovascular sciences program at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Dr. Scott Johnstone explores how the cells of the heart’s blood vessels respond to stenting to avoid future blood flow blockages; Dr. Jessica Pfleger studies cardiac insulin resistance; Dr. Yassine Sassi works on pulmonary hypertension; and Dr. Junco Warren is developing new therapeutics for heart failure. These four leading-edge cardiovascular researchers join the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s Center for Heart and Reparative Medicine Research.
Dr. Rob Gourdie, the Center’s leader, and his team are developing drug nanodelivery systems for treating heart attacks, preventing subsequent damage to healthy surrounding tissue; Dr. Steve Poelzing’s group is deploying discoveries made in their lab to resuscitate patients who have experienced sudden cardiac death by restoring normal mechanical heart contractions; Dr. Jamie Smyth’s team is investigating ways to prevent COVID-19 from infecting the heart and causing inflammation and long-term damage; and Dr. John Chappell’s laboratory is elucidating how a poorly understood type of cell, called a pericyte, may contribute to forming new blood vessels in the heart, brain and other organs.
In addition to the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s growth in cardiovascular research, its recently opened new research building already has two additional programs: Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory, led by Dr. Carla Finkielstein that has provided almost 100,000 PCR accurate tests for our community since last April and Dr. Jenny Munson whose team applies the understanding of how fluids flow in the tumor microenvironment to develop more effective therapeutics to treat brain cancer.
Each of these research group leaders and their teams are completely dedicated to our future health through investing their expertise, passion and time in research as is Virginia Tech through its commitment of resources and its motto – Ut Prosim (that I may serve).
What is a future worth? Everything – but we first have to realize its value!
Friedlander is Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology, Virginia Tech; Executive Director, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC; Senior Dean for Research, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; Professor of Biological Sciences and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine.