Professor receives research award

By By Deborah Rafferty

By Deborah Rafferty

The National Institutes of Health have awarded a U scientist for researching a potentially new effective treatment for heart disease.

Ivor Benjamin, a U professor of internal medicine and biochemistry, received one of the more prestigious awards the NIH offers: the 2009 Pioneer Award. Benjamin and his team of researchers will receive $500,000 during five years, which will total $2.5 million. After a highly competitive review process, Benjamin was selected as one of 18 researchers to receive the award.

Part of a larger grant program, the Pioneer Award funds innovative medical research that recognizes medical professionals who want to pursue research that opposes accepted theories, which NIH wouldn’t normally fund. Benjamin’s research into how a different type of stress might be causing heart disease fit the bill. It’s scientific dogma that the body produces what Benjamin refers to as “free radicals” in response to oxygen intake. Once inside the body, the free radicals move and create chemical reactions, damaging organs and other tissues. The body produces antioxidants to help protect it from the free radicals.

“We believe there is much attention paid to oxidative stress, which may cause free radicals,” Benjamin said. “Our work points to the opposite condition, reductive stress. It challenges the current dogma that oxidation stress is the main pathway to give rise to types of heart failure.”

Although Benjamin’s work is not disputing that oxidation stress is an important cause of heart failure, he is pointing out a new kind of research that had previously not been explored. In 2007, Benjamin presented findings suggesting that antioxidants, which are molecules researchers believe help protect the heart, might be the cause of heart disease and diseases of other organs. This is because of a gene mutation that can cause the body to overproduce these molecules, harming the body instead of helping it. This process of overproduction is known as reductive stress. In mouse models, the mice with increased levels of antioxidants damaged their hearts, and those with normal levels did not.

About 500,000 new cases of heart failure are diagnosed every year, and about 3 million people suffer from it, Benjamin said. If he is successful in his research, it could result in new therapy for a disease where therapy has proven to be ineffective.

“I’m clearly thrilled about the substantial funds that enable us to continue research and to be considered among the elite groups of researchers,” Benjamin said.

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