$30 Million from AHA Bolsters Framingham Heart Study

Sponsors collaboration between BU, University of Mississippi

Philip Wolf, a MED professor and principal investigator of the Framingham Heart Study, says AHA’s support will allow further exploration of the genetics underlying cardiovascular disease. Photo by Cydney Scott
Philip Wolf, a MED professor and principal investigator of the Framingham Heart Study, says AHA’s support will allow further exploration of the genetics underlying cardiovascular disease. Photo by Cydney Scott

Thanks to a $30 million commitment from the American Heart Association (AHA), researchers from Boston University and the University of Mississippi will collaborate for at least five years on a shared mission to find better preventive measures and treatments for heart disease—the leading cause of death in the world, according to the World Health Organization.

The Framingham Heart Study (FHS), with more than 15,000 participants and 65 years of data, is the nation’s longest running heart study. It has been supported almost since its 1948 beginning by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health, and run by Boston University since 1971. The study was the first large-scale investigation to link risk factors—such as smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol—to cardiovascular disease. In 2000, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, along with its partners at Jackson State University and Tougaloo College, replicated the FHS model in creating the Jackson Heart Study (JHS), with a focus on the genetic factors related to cardiovascular disease in African-Americans. With 5,000 participants, it is the largest study in history to focus on this population.

Researchers from both studies have collaborated over the years, but the new renewable funding from the AHA will facilitate a closer working relationship through what the organization has coined Heart Studies v2.0.

AHA CEO Nancy Brown told the Wall Street Journal that the organization sees this project as critical to its goal of achieving a 20 percent improvement in cardiovascular health in the United States while reducing deaths from heart disease and stroke by 20 percent for the decade ending in 2020.

The collaboration “gives us the opportunity to extend what we’ve been doing into the newest avenues of research,” particularly in genetics, says FHS principal investigator Philip Wolf, a School of Medicine professor. Vasan Ramachandran, a MED professor and chief of preventive medicine and epidemiology, will take over from Wolf as principal investigator in January.

Combining the Framingham and Jackson studies’ findings could reveal “differences in the causes of heart disease in the two populations,” says Karen Antman, MED dean and provost of the Medical Campus. African-Americans suffer disproportionately from cardiovascular disease, with annual death rates up to 64 percent higher for black males.

Scientific and oversight committees are still being formed, so details on how the collaboration will play out in coming months and years are not yet available, according to Wolf and Antman.

This $30 million in funding is very good news for the Framingham Heart Study, which was notified over the summer that its budget would be cut by $4 million, or about 40 percent of the money it receives through its core contract with the NHLBI. Those cuts forced the elimination of participants’ biennial exams, which Wolf describes as “the lifeblood of the study,” because they engender participant loyalty and include blood pressure readings, MRIs, and CT scans.

The exams are also important because they provide an opportunity for technicians to collect blood, urine, and cell samples, which are eventually frozen in biobanks. The FHS already has more than one million samples, while Jackson holds 40,000. Wolf considers the biobanks genetic gold mines, in that they may enable the development of tests that link certain genes to cardiovascular disease. Researchers could search for the frozen white blood cells or plasma of participants known to have suffered a heart attack or a stroke, analyze the DNA, and confirm a new test’s efficacy for predicting health risks.

Wolf believes the technique will open doors to more personalized health care. For example, he says, people living with hypertension get better results from one drug over another, but the more effective drug is apparent only after weeks of trial and error with a cocktail of medications that could have uncomfortable—or life-threatening—side effects. He and his colleagues think they will someday be able to analyze participants’ genomes and categorize them according to who would benefit the most from a given medication. Wolf hopes Heart Studies v2.0 will allow for the collection of more real-time data, such as daily miles walked or calories consumed by participants, to provide greater context for genetic analyses.

This BU Today story was written by Leslie Friday. She can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.