End of Network Report Hypertension

The American Heart Association’s mission is to be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. The foundation of that work is funding lifesaving research. The organization is proud to be the leading not-for-profit funder of heart disease and stroke research in the U.S. Its research program, which dates back more than seven decades, has funded more than $4.6 billion to target heart disease and stroke, two of the world’s leading causes of death.

One way the AHA prioritizes research is by funding Strategically Focused Research Networks (SFRN) to accelerate progress in specific areas of need. In 2015, the AHA began its second SFRN, focused on hypertension, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. This $15 million SFRN invested more than $3.7 million to the following four institutions:

  • Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to study target organ damage in youth
  • Medical College of Wisconsin to examine genetic changes in patients with hypertension
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham to look at blood pressure patterns impacting organ disease; and
  • University of Iowa to study ways to predict hypertension during pregnancy

One of the most notable features of this SFRN was the requirement that each center’s work include a basic, clinical and population science component. Several center directors said this model was a way to create translational teams that conducted research more efficiently and effectively

“Our SFRN included about 15 or 20 investigators,” said Paul Muntner, Ph.D., M.H.S., FAHA, FASH, Center Director from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Having so many people working together, there was clearly synergy, where the sum was truly greater than the parts.” Mark Santillan, M.D., Ph.D., FACOG, FAHA, a principal investigator from the University of Iowa, agreed.

“The SFRN model has been really smart for the AHA to take on because it addresses all aspects of a particular disease,” he said. “It was natural for us because we were always working between the bench and the bedside.”

Beyond the collaboration within each institution, researchers were also required to collaborate across centers throughout the multi-year project. Each site worked with one another on everything from publications to intellectual exchanges. Creating meaningful, replicable ways to collaborate across institutions was one of the project goals, said Oversight Advisory Committee Chairperson Daniel Lackland, Dr.P.H., FAHA.

He outlined a three-pronged benefit to the SFRN’s work: (1) at the project level; (2) at the center level; and (3) at the network level — how each center’s work related to the issues of hypertension.

“[This SFRN] really challenged these researchers to work together and create a synergistic, high-impact model,” Lackland said. “They put together something very unique.”