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UT team seeks gene key to blood pressure ills


UT researcher and associate professor Bina Joe works with rats to pinpoint specific genes that contribute to high blood pressure.

The Blade/Lisa Bernheim
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Helping create personalized medicine -- where people's genetic makeups are used to customize their health-care regimens -- is a promising part of Bina Joe's job.

The University of Toledo researcher is heading up a team pinpointing specific genes that contribute to high blood pressure, a common condition that can cause heart damage, stroke, and other health problems. With the use of laboratory rats, some with high blood pressure and others without, four genes have been identified so far in research that started more than three decades ago at the former Medical College of Ohio, Ms. Joe said.

"We're contributing," said Ms. Joe, UT associate professor of physiology and pharmacology. "Whatever detail we provide to this big blueprint to life is going to be useful."

Scientists have long known genetics plays a role in high blood pressure, also called hypertension, which affects one in three adult Americans, according to the American Heart Association.

In Lucas County, 35 percent of adults have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, according to the latest Lucas County Health Assessment report from 2007.

"Research is being done about this all the time because it's a warning -- it's a risk factor," said Beth Langefelf, a heart association spokesman.

At UT, Ms. Joe is building on work started in the 1970s by researcher John Rapp. The National Institutes of Health has been providing research funding, which currently is at about $1.5 million a year -- an amount that could reach $2 million annually if a recent request is granted in full.

Ms. Joe also is embarking on other research. To help further the future for personalized medicine, for example, research is being done to determine why some diabetics also get high blood pressure from medication prescribed to lower their blood glucose, she said.

Knowing genetically what causes cardiovascular reactions in those diabetics -- and what genes contribute to high blood pressure at all -- will help determine specific preventative measures and medications people should take even from a young age, said Ms. Joe, who last year received the Young Scholar Award from the American Society of Hypertension.

Others in the 10-member research team at UT also are receiving accolades for their work. Kathirvel Gopalakrishnan, a postdoctoral fellow working with Ms. Joe, next month is receiving the New Investigator Award at the American Heart Association's annual conference on high blood pressure research.

Rats have nearly as many genome base pairs as humans, and their genes can be altered for testing, Ms. Joe said. They can be kept in a controlled environment, and their blood pressure is monitored through a cuff on their tails or a surgically implanted device, she said.

"You can control what they eat, you exercise them or not, you can control the temperature in the room," said Ms. Joe, a mother of two whose husband, Venkatesha Basrur, also is a biomedical researcher at the University of Michigan.

The number of genes contributing to high blood pressure is unknown, and research will continue to go on for years, Ms. Joe said.

"We're trying to connect the dots, and we don't know how many dots," she said. "It's a big, giant puzzle."

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: or 419-724-6087.

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