University of Virginia Professor of Pediatrics and Biology R. Ariel Gomez, M.D., has been awarded the prestigious Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Gomez, vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at UVa, will use the award to further his research into how cells know their own identity. The MERIT Award is designed to provide long-term, stable support to investigators whose research, competence, productivity and scientific contributions are distinctly superior according to the National Institutes of Health.
This rare award consists of an initial five-year period ($1.9 million) which is renewable for an additional five years of support with a potential total funding of $3.8 million. There is no application for the Merit Award. Recipients are selected by the NHLBI Council, which recognizes the most outstanding renewal or new R01 applications form superior researchers.
“I’m very proud and I think this is great for the institution, it is a great honor,” Gomez said. “Obviously, it gives enormous support to explore the most difficult, fundamental questions about my area of research: how cells know their identity.”
Gomez research focuses on the juxtaglomerular (JG) cell. This cell in adults produces renin, a substance that increases blood pressure. Renin helps the body maintain blood pressure and proper levels of electrolytes and fluids. Gomez has identified precursors of these adult JG cells which produced renin during embryonic development. While some of these precursor cells go on to be renin-producers, others become different cell types such as smooth muscle cells found in the lining of blood vessels. If a body is under duress (such as dehydration, low blood pressure, etc.) there are not enough JG cells producing renin to maintain normal blood pressure. That is when some cells remember their origins.
“These cells can flip flop based on the needs of our body. They retain the memory of who they were. When they were embryonic cells, they made renin. When the body needs them to maintain blood pressure they revert back to their embryonic state transiently until the body has recovered,” Gomez explained.
The crux of Gomez’ research revolves around a chromatin scaffold which supports the DNA of the smooth muscle cell in place. He and his team are working to determine which factors cause the chromatin to allow its renin-producing gene to be activated. They have already created a cell model in which a cell changes color based on their identity.
Gomez hopes to harness the reversion process in the cell to develop treatments for blood pressure diseases and kidney ailments and potentially to cell-based therapies.
“Dr. Gomez has distinguished himself with an important body of research and has the respect and admiration of his colleagues at the University of Virginia and around the world. That the NIH has chosen to honor inquisitiveness and advancement of science with a MERIT Award speaks volumes to his work as a physician scientist,” said Sharon Hostler, M.D., interim dean and vice president of the University of Virginia School of Medicine.