Stephen Chan, professor of medicine and director of the Vascular Medicine Institute, will be the principal investigator on an interdisciplinary team funded by a $14.3 million gift from the WoodNext Foundation to study causes of inflammation that lead to heart disease and dementia.
A foundation created by the founder and CEO of Roku, Anthony Wood, and his wife, Susan, has given a $14.3 million award to the University of Pittsburgh to expand research on the causes of inflammation that lead to heart disease and dementia.
The transformational donation from the WoodNext Foundation will support three interconnected projects led by Stephen Chan, professor of medicine and director of the Vascular Medicine Institute; Anne Newman, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Aging and Public Health and Toren Finkel, professor of translational medicine and director of the Aging Institute.
“This gift will bring together three world-class research teams, disrupting the traditional path of single disease research,” said Anantha Shekhar, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences. “The transformational contribution from the WoodNext Foundation will advance biomedical, cardiovascular and neuroscience research through collaboration and innovation.”
Previous research has shown a close link between inflammatory processes and chronic diseases of aging, including cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative conditions. However, studies have yet to provide a clear understanding of how inflammation simultaneously drives these deadly conditions, according to Chan.
“This funding provides a unique opportunity to learn how inflammation connects the cardiovascular and neurological systems,” said Chan, who will serve as principal investigator of the interdisciplinary team.
“We will leverage our discoveries to identify molecules in the body that could be targeted by drugs and develop a novel generation of medicines that prevent, treat or even reverse these disease processes and improve the lives of patients worldwide.”
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and dementia will affect 9 million Americans aged 65 and older by 2030.
The three major areas of study at Pitt are:
Using gene-editing tools and genome-wide association studies to discover causes of inflammation connecting heart disease with dementia, with a key goal to identify specific proteins that drive neurodegeneration. This work will leverage existing data from Pitt’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center to develop a computational algorithm that predicts dementia risk based on genetic and clinical parameters. Chan will lead this team.
Building upon the genomic research, a second team will use a novel technology to pinpoint effective compounds that target proteins considered “undruggable” with standard approaches. The team expects to identify drugs to prevent or reverse dementia. Finkel will lead this team.
A third team will launch a first-ever clinical trial to determine whether an immune regulator can reduce the deleterious aspects of aging in elderly, but otherwise healthy, adults. The study will evaluate whether a monoclonal antibody that potently reduces inflammation can lead to improved cardiovascular and cognitive function. Newman will lead this team.
The WoodNext Foundation gift also will support an entrepreneur-in-residence to work with faculty scientists and Pitt’s Innovation Institute on therapeutic commercialization. Further, the donation will fund an Innovation Board of Advisors with ties to the biotech industry and investment community.
Anthony Wood was raised in England, Georgia and Texas. He and his wife met while in school at Texas A&M. Wood founded Roku in 2002. Neither he nor his wife have any known direct ties to Pitt, but have given to the University before through their foundation.
This recent gift adds to $6.3 million in other awards from WoodNext Foundation to the University of Pittsburgh for a total of $20.6 million. Those contributions fund research on the genetic underpinnings of sleep dysfunction, seeking novel treatments including pharmaceuticals and brain stimulation.