-Department of Public Health Sciences, Division of Epidemiology
-Managing Co-Director of UNYTE
-Novel Methodologies Awardee
-UNYTE Pilot Funding Awardee
-Laboratory Support Center Awardee
Dr. Robert Block, Assistant Professor in the Epidemiology Division of the Department of Public Health Sciences, is a prime example of how researchers and clinicians can use a variety of CTSI funding opportunities to move their projects forward. Dr. Block is a 2008 Novel Methodologies Awardee (Project: “Potent Lipid Mediator Measurement Methodology,” with Dr. Steve Georas), a 2007 KL2 Scholar (Project: “The Role of Fatty Acids and their Metabolites in the Pathophysiology of Sudden Cardiac Death”), a 2007 UNYTE Pilot Funding Awardee (Project: “Potent Lipid Mediators and Ischemic Heart Disease,” with Dr. Shaker Mousa and Dr. Thomas Brenna), and a 2006 Laboratory Support Center Awardee (Project: “15-Epi-lipoxin in Ischemic Cardiomyopathy”). Dr. Block says the funding support he has received from the CTSI and UNYTE has made much of his research possible.
A preventive cardiologist, Dr. Block specializes in the care of patients with hyperlipidemia, or high blood cholesterol levels. His expertise includes the diagnosis and treatment of patients with complex lipid disorders and familial cholesterol diseases. His research focuses on how nutrition affects the risk of cardiovascular disease, especially how fatty acids and their metabolites can impact heart disease risk (particularly in patients with coronary artery disease).
Involvement with the CTSI and UNYTE
Dr. Block’s interest in translational research was fostered under the guidance of his mentor, Dr. Thomas Pearson, Director of the CTSI. Dr. Block has also partnered with researchers from other institutions through the UNYTE Translational Research Network. UNYTE, a component of the CTSI, serves as a national model of research collaboration and includes 17 of the region’s premier biomedical research institutions. Dr. Block became its Managing Co-Director in 2010. He says UNYTE’s impact on medical community is invaluable.
“It helps people’s health more for the amount of resources expended – financial and otherwise,” he said. “It brings people together from different backgrounds, different skill sets, different hypotheses, and different areas of focus, and these help to bring people together so they can think about what’s really important.”
Dr. Block says, as a clinician, it is beneficial for him to work with individuals who have different areas of focus; he says biochemists and laboratory scientists offer unique points of view, which are essential in recognizing the true value and impact of his research.
“Much of the time, it simply takes a team approach to think differently about things and to make adequate use of other people’s expertise,” he said.
He also stressed the value of UNYTE for students, trainees, and young faculty members.
“I think [UNYTE] is a great opportunity for them because it will make their time spent doing research much more efficient. I think they’ll have a greatly enhanced ability to get funding to do the kind of research they want to do.”
Dr. Block received support through a UNYTE collaborative award with Shaker Mousa, PhD, at the Albany College of Pharmacy, and Thomas Brenna, PhD, at Cornell University. The project, which began in 2007, investigated how fatty acids and their metabolites affect cardiovascular disease through angiogenesis, or the development of new blood vessels. Dr. Block and his colleagues found that some fatty acid metabolites increase angiogenesis.
“Even though it sounds like a great thing to have new blood vessels in your heart, for example, it turns out that much of the data supports angiogenesis to be a problem in increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke,” Dr. Block said.
In addition to this study, Dr. Block is also investigating aspirin resistance in patients with diabetes. Aspirin helps prevent cardiovascular disease, but because diabetics do not have a normal response to aspirin, they do not experience its beneficial effects. As a result, they are at high risk for heart attack and stroke. Dr. Block is again collaborating with Dr. Mousa and Dr. Brenna to determine if fish oil enhances the effects of aspirin. This study is funded through an R21 from the NIH. It utilizes the URMC Clinical Research Center and is expected to be completed by the end of May 2011.
Click here for a video of Dr. Block explaining aspirin resistance in diabetes patients
Dr. Block is also investigating the role omega-3 fatty acids (particularly docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA) have on weight loss. He says there are a few small studies that suggest people may lose weight when they eat more fish. There is also data showing that DHA has effects on something like serotonin in the brain, which regulates people’s appetites. Therefore, DHA could contribute to how people perceive food and how they determine what they want to eat. Dr. Block says this is a new way of thinking, but it is something he plans to explore.
How will this research impact people’s every day heart health? Dr. Block says although people often think that how much they eat is the most important indicator of their wellbeing, he has discovered that what people eat and how the body processes it is more telling. Dr. Block is now exploring new therapies based on the fatty acids people ingest, as well as medications used in preventive cardiology, to determine how they affect fatty acid metabolism.
With blood vessel disease currently the number one cause of death in the United States and the world, Dr. Block says the long term goal of his studies is to reduce people’s risk for these diseases, and to improve the prognosis for patients who have already been diagnosed.
Why are You Drawn to This Type of Research?
Dr. Block says in today’s world of expensive medications, it would be ideal to rely on a behavioral area of focus when treating certain conditions. Therapies based on what people eat and how much they exercise would eliminate excessive reliance on medications, which often have side effects. He is working with Dr. Geoffrey Williams in the Center for Community Health to try to improve people’s lifestyle factors, with the goal of lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
“If we can use some really simplistic, inexpensive ways to improve people’s health, that’s what I’m shooting for.”