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VITAL: an alliance building the infrastructure to expand UK's disease research capability

Gill researcher
Blog

/ by UK HealthCare

The short game of VITAL is to generate publications and collaborate on grants that fund critical research projects. The long game is a much greater goal.

Beth Garvy, PhD, and Sidney Whiteheart, PhD, originally planned to study blood clotting in HIV-positive patients when they first approached one another to establish a unified research team. Then COVID-19 emerged, and their focus shifted on the disease that started a global pandemic.

Dr. Garvy and Dr. Whiteheart now lead what is called the Virus-Induced Thrombosis Alliance (VITAL), a team supported by the University of Kentucky College of Medicine’s Alliance Research Initiative that is working to bridge the gap between infectious diseases and cardiovascular diseases, one of the Research Priority Areas from the UK Office of the Vice President for Research. Dr. Garvy is associate dean for biomedical education and professor in the department of microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics, while Dr. Whiteheart is a professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry.

The short game of VITAL is to generate publications and collaborate on grants that fund critical research projects. The long game is a much greater goal – establishing a research infrastructure that will make studying infectious diseases a much smoother, more efficient process for clinicians and scientists so when new viruses inevitably appear, as COVID-19 did, UK will be even more prepared for tackling related issues.

Dr. Garvy and Dr. Whiteheart describe their Alliance team’s work as “building an airplane while it’s still flying.” Their team is conducting research and clinical trials, and the infrastructure is growing and improving day by day, but there are still some tasks left to officially establish a system that works like a well-oiled machine. Based on their current trajectory, that goal is attainable.

“Had this infrastructure been there from the beginning, we might not have ever had to backtrack,” Dr. Garvy said. “But the good thing is that we’re now getting to the point where we can bring other people on, and we can help them get what they need because we have now built the airplane, and it can fly, and we are actually getting the workings to be a better resource for the rest of campus.”

VITAL began with a search for answers on why HIV-positive patients had an increased risk of blood clots. The team has studied populations in Kentucky, and was beginning to examine HIV-positive patients in Durban, South Africa, through a collaboration with the African Health Research Institute led by VITAL team member Zach Porterfield, MD, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics.

In response to the global pandemic, VITAL translated its research to COVID-19, which has a different immune response than seen in HIV. Specifically, the Alliance has developed a project examining COVID-19-associated coagulopathies (when the blood’s ability to clot is out of balance). The core team was originally composed of basic researchers, including Jeremy Wood, PhD, in the department of internal medicine’s division of cardiology who studies coagulation factors and is working to include more clinical faculty in their infectious disease division who deal with monitoring coagulation therapies. VITAL recently added Muhammad Gul, MD, and Brittany Bissell, MD, two new faculty members in internal medicine with experience treating COVID-19 patients. The project has the framework to allow for expansion into studies of other viruses such as influenza and hepatitis C, another major disease in Kentucky.

The funding from the Alliance Research Initiative has been critical in assisting VITAL with this expansion. It also has allowed for a major part of the team’s success: developing the beginnings of a patient registry that provides scientists and clinicians better organized access to human cell samples. It could be a game-changer for future research associated with clinical care.

Dr. Garvy and Dr. Whiteheart are excited to get wheels back on the ground in Africa after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. They are also hopeful that the “airplane” they have built will be useful for the next round of researchers.

“I hope that what we have been able to build, will be maintained over a prolonged period of time, that this will just be the beginning for our junior faculty, for fellows, for the students who are coming in, that they'll be able to use the infrastructure that we're going to need for that and build it to a greater degree,” Dr. Whiteheart said. “There's still more that needs to be done, but I feel like it's moving and it's growing. And then infectious disease research at the University of Kentucky will have a great future because of this infrastructure.”

For more information about VITAL and other Alliance teams, visit www.med.uky.edu/alliance.

VITAL Alliance team members:

  • Hammodah Alfar, Graduate Student – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Meenakshi Banerjee, PhD, - University of Utah
  • Brittany Bissell, PharmD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • George Davis, PharmD, Professor – College of Pharmacy
  • Beth A. Garvy, PhD, Associate Dean for Biomedical Education – Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics
  • Muhammad Gul, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Melissa Hollifield, Scientist – Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics
  • Xian Li, PhD, Scientist – Cardiovascular Research Center
  • Thein Myint, MD, Associate Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Barbara Nikolajzyk, PhD, Professor – Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences
  • Chi Peng, PhD Candidate
  • Zach Porterfield, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics
  • Martha Sim, Graduate Student – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Jamie Sturgill, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Alice Thornton, MD, Division Chief – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Sidney W. Whiteheart, PhD, Professor – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Jeremy P. Wood, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Jerold Woodward, PhD, Professor – Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics
  • Congqing Wu, PhD – Department of Physiology

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