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OHSU Dental School Researcher Receives $1.4 Million NIH Grant

02/07/05   Portland, Ore.

Neurophysiologist will examine molecules in the brain called 'neurotrophins' to determine what role they play in nervous system development

An Oregon Health & Science University neurophysiologist has received a $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health's Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to examine a group of molecules called neurotrophins to determine their role in the part of the nervous system that controls the heart and blood vessels. The five-year grant was awarded to Agnieszka Balkowiec, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of integrative biosciences in the OHSU School of Dentistry.

"This grant is related to general health care," said Balkowiec, also an adjunct assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology in the OHSU School of Medicine. "We recently discovered that neurons controlling heart rate and blood pressure synthesize a molecule called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which belongs to a family of neurotrophins that play a critical role in the development and plasticity of many populations of neurons. This grant will enable us to examine the role of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor and other neurotrophins in the maturation and function of the part of the nervous system that controls the heart and blood vessels."

Results of Balkowiec's studies may shed light on how the nerve supply to the cardiovascular system is established during development, which could someday help scientists better understand cardiorespiratory developmental disorders such as sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.

Balkowiec will be working with two graduate students and collaborating with Sue Aicher, Ph.D., an associate scientist in the OHSU Neurological Sciences Institute, as well as Virginia Brooks, Ph.D., a professor of physiology and pharmacology in the School of Medicine.

The NIH study is a continuation of a smaller study sponsored by the American Heart Association.

Balkowiec's NIH grant is an example of the School of Dentistry's renewed commitment to research. The school presently has more than $5 million in research funding. During the past several years, the School of Dentistry has recruited more than a dozen new full-time faculty members, most of whom are active in research, and converted more than 7,500 square feet into research laboratories.

"By focusing more on research, we hope to increase the number of cutting-edge advances in oral health that will help us not only treat patients, but enable dentists throughout the Northwest to provide the very best care," said Jack Clinton, dean, OHSU School of Dentistry.

The 105-year-old School of Dentistry is Oregon's only dental school and one of two dental schools in the Northwest. More than 80 percent of Oregon's dentists graduated from the OHSU School of Dentistry.

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