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   A Memorial University of Newfoundland Publication

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February 19, 2004


Genesis of cardiovascular disease

Dr. Hu Liu
Photo by Chris Hammond
Dr. Hu Liu

By Kristin Harris
SPARK Correspondent

Memorial’s Genesis Group, a now well-established centre that has nurtured technology-based research, is also an incubator for technology-based businesses aiming to bring their product to market. The Genesis Group has sponsored numerous projects in the areas of biotechnology, marine technology, and the physical and life sciences.

One of the successful projects sponsored by the Genesis Group is that of Dr. Hu Liu, associate professor at Memorial’s School of Pharmacy. Dr. Liu’s development of a diagnostic agent to detect heart disease in its early stages is one that may have far-reaching effects on the health care and pharmaceutical industries.

Cardiovascular disease is responsible for 40 per cent of deaths in industrialized nations. While cardiovascular disease can take a number of forms, such as heart attack and stroke, its root is in the development of arteriosclerosis, which may be caused by genetic factors as well as environment, such as diet and exercise. The disease starts at an early age and progresses over a long period of time, typically about 20 years. It is often not diagnosed until its late stages, usually when the patient suffers a heart attack. By that point, surgery is often the only option.

Currently, the only diagnostic tool for cardiovascular disease is an angiography, which detects blood flow in the blood vessel. However, half of the artery must be obstructed for detection to occur. Dr. Liu asserts, “It is important to have a diagnostic agent to detect cardiovascular disease at an early stage, because then there is a good chance of reversal, delay, or even avoiding the onset of the disease.”

Dr. Liu’s work was based on the stages of degeneration of the blood vessel as arteriosclerosis progresses in the body. A normal blood vessel is smooth on the inside, enabling blood to flow freely. As the disease develops, the surface of the blood vessel becomes damaged, enabling lipids to stick to the damaged area. Eventually, the blood vessel bursts and a blood clot forms, which restricts the flow of blood even further.

With support from the Genesis Group, as well as $700,000 of research funding from groups such as CIHR, ACOA, Rx&D and Banting Research Foundation, Dr. Liu began working in 1996 on developing a compound that can be injected into the body as a means of early detection of heart disease.

Dr. Liu’s compound is lipid soluble; that is, it mimics the metabolic route taken by normal lipids as they attach themselves to a damaged blood vessel. Since the compound radiates gamma rays, when a gamma ray camera is focused on the subject, it can detect where radiation is coming from, and therefore where the damage is on the blood vessel.

His preliminary experiments in rabbits and transgenic mice showed that, indeed, the compound does detect damage to the blood vessel. The radioactivity and damage areas correlate in his test subjects.

Dr. Liu’s success thus far has led to the purchase of his patent, initially achieved through Genesis, by BTG International in 2003. As for the future of the compound, Dr. Liu states, “We need to expand the experiment to larger animals, and eventually to humans. However, there are still many hurdles to overcome.” If each stage is successful, Dr. Liu estimates that the compound will be commercially available to the medical field in another five to seven years.


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Next issue: March 4, 2004

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