April 21, 2023

UCalgary-led study provides insight for circulation disorders in brain and spinal cord

Findings are enabled by experimental drug and software designed by UCalgary researchers
Aaron Phillips
Aaron Phillips.

A scientific finding by a team of researchers, led by Dr. Aaron Phillips, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, in collaboration with researchers at King’s College London offers hope for new treatments for individuals with circulation disorders in the brain and spinal cord. 

The research team identified the molecular mechanism behind a key process involved in controlling the circulation in the central nervous system, which can play a role in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and spinal cord injury, as well as some cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension and atrial fibrillation. 

“It’s an exciting finding. Conditions caused by lack of blood flow to the brain and spinal cord are difficult to assess and challenging to treat,” says Phillips, senior author on the study. “It opens the door to potential therapies.” 

The Phillips Lab and RESTORE Network at the Cumming School of Medicine spent years developing a computational tool to study how the body regulates circulation to meet the metabolic needs of the nervous system through a process called neurovascular coupling. In addition to developing automated software for the analysis, the tool required new protocols and assessment hardware. 

The platform made it possible for the team to look at how a specific molecule in neurons, neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS), signals circulation to keep up with the metabolism needs of the central nervous system. For this, they collaborated with the group at King’s College London who are experts in the field of nNOS regulation. The study published in Circulation Research is the first time an experiment of its kind had been performed in humans. 

“This was really important as nNOS is uniquely positioned to play a key role in regulating circulation and ensuring the brain is not starved of blood,” says Dr. Kevin O’Gallagher, MD, PhD, at King’s College London and first author on the study. “Understanding the mechanism is key to both diagnosing and treating individuals with conditions associated with impaired circulation in the central nervous system.”

Phillips has launched a new startup, HEMOtx, to help bring these tools to the community. 

“We believe that our neurovascular assessment platform and the new knowledge related to nNOS helps in both diagnosing circulation disorders in the central nervous system and in developing new therapeutics for these conditions,” says Phillips.

Dr. Robert Rose, PhD, Libin Cardiovascular Institute deputy director, says navigating the complexities of the human system is key in predicting and preventing disease and in providing personalized care. 

“Dr. Phillips and the team have made an important discovery with the potential to impact patients. We are proud of the work they are doing and congratulate them on this impressive study."

This research is supported by the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre (NIHR BRC) at Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, King’s College London and the British Heart Foundation.

The Precision Medicine Initiative at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute aims to turn data into decision-making tools to usher in a new horizon in clinical excellence. 

Aaron Phillips is an associate professor in the departments of Physiology and Pharmacology, Biomedical Engineering, Cardiac Sciences and Clinical Neurosciences and director of the Restore Network at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). He is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, and Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the CSM. 

Robert Rose is a professor in the departments of Cardiac Sciences, and Physiology and Pharmacology at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). He is the deputy director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute at the CSM. 

Kevin O’Gallagher is a clinician-scientist and interventional cardiologist at the British Heart Foundation Centre of Research Excellence, King’s College London, U.K. 

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