University of North Dakota Faculty/Staff Newsletter

NIH funds atherosclerosis gene study by Colin Combs

The National Institutes of Health is funding a UND scientist’s pursuit of a potential cause of atherosclerosis. Colin Combs, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Therapeutics at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), will receive $379,500 over the next two years for his work on atherosclerosis.

A part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH is the nation’s medical research agency. The NIH is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world.

Atherosclerosis is the disease that results from the buildup of plaque deposits in arteries. Plaque is a sticky substance made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances found in blood. The buildup of plaque eventually hardens, narrowing the arteries and restricting the blood flow. Atherosclerosis is often referred to as hardening of the arteries.

The slow, subtle onset of the disease, starting as early as childhood, means many people are unaware of the disease until they suffer a stroke or a heart attack in their 50s or 60s. Atherosclerosis is implicated in a host of other problems, including heart failure, aneurysms, and kidney failure.

Combs’ focus is on a gene known as APP, or amyloid precursor protein, which is found in cell membranes throughout the body. Its normal function is unknown; however, research has shown it may be involved with Alzheimer’s disease. The project will allow his laboratory to understand whether APP has a role in regulating the inflammation that occurs in the arteries during plaque formation. This suggests that this same protein, APP, may contribute in some fashion to the process of not only Alzheimer’s disease but also atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis is preventable and treatable. Preventive steps are to quit smoking, eat healthful foods, maintain a healthful weight, exercise more, and manage stress. People with the condition may be treated with medications to lower “bad” cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and raise the “good” cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), in their blood. Physicians may also prescribe aspirin to reduce platelets from clumping and further blocking the arteries. Other treatments may include angioplasty, a procedure to physically widen the artery to improve blood flow.

-- Denis MacLeod, assistant director, Office of Alumni and Community Relations, SMHS, 777.2733,

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