Improving Communication Among Researchers

Thornburg with model of human heart

Several years ago, Dr. Kent Thornburg crossed paths with the OHSU chief of cardiac surgery who was on his way to an operation for a child with outflow obstruction to the right ventricle. (The right ventricle had to work terribly hard to pump blood through that vessel.) When the chief wondered out loud what happened to the heart muscle when this happens, Thornburg knew there was a problem with his organization. “There are people in my lab who are working on that problem,” he told his colleague. The chief had no idea.

Thornburg decided to call a meeting of many scientists and physicians to discover the extent to which communication problems were inhibiting the effectiveness of cardiovascular research at Oregon Health & Sciences University (OHSU). “Sure enough,” he said, “when we got together, we found that our organizational structure kept us in our own departments and we didn’t even know about each other's research.” That group of scientists and heart doctors thought that all heart researchers should form an organization to enhance their ability to obtain funding, train young scientists and raise awareness of heart disease in the community.

That meeting was the impetus for The Heart Research Center, which was founded in 1994 at OHSU. The purpose of this umbrella organization is to bring scientists and physicians from all departments to do research together. Today, there are over 100 physicians and scientists who belong to the center.

"It’s been really impressive in that we now have people working together who projects funded by the federal government – who didn’t even know each other before,” Thornburg said. “They are now working on major kinds of health issues that would never have happened if The Heart Research Center hadn’t helped raise the money to get them started, and if we hadn’t formed the organization that facilitated getting to know each other.”

The Heart Research Center offers teams small amounts of money to get new ideas off the ground with the understanding that if all goes well, the team will apply for national funding to get a large grant. Since its founding, the Heart Research Center has provided thousands of dollars in seed grants which have led to tens of millions of dollars in national funding.

One project of Thornburg’s is the study of low birth weight as an indicator of diseases later in life, particularly type II diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoporosis. If a baby is born small at term, he says, it means that the fetus went through a less-than-optimal developmental process, making him or her more likely to have diseases later. Three factors that cause low birth weight are: fetal malnutrition; the placenta doesn’t work right, or the baby gets low oxygen; the baby gets too much of the stress hormone from the mother, causing slower growth.

Women who are undernourished or obese tend to have babies which have not grown properly. “So we believe that we have to start thinking about how young girls are eating and how they are growing their bodies before they are pregnant,” Thornburg said. “We believe this may have larger impact on population health than what they eat while they’re pregnant, which has very little affect by comparison.” The OHSU Heart Research Center has several groups studying this problem to educate the general public on these health issues.

The study of the early origins of cardiovascular disease represents an active area of research in the HRC. Many outstanding scientists are investigating this problem at OHSU. In addition, there are many other teams of HRC scientists who are making exciting discoveries in other areas to enhance our battle against cardiovascular disease.