Actress, writer and aortic health advocate Amy Yasbeck has joined with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) to establish the John Ritter Research Program in Aortic and Vascular Diseases (JRRP) to combat the devastating disease that took the life of her husband, legendary comic actor John Ritter.
"UTHealth's research program is at the forefront of a movement dedicated to discovering the genetic causes of aortic disease. Together, we are committed to identifying at-risk families and providing them with life-saving information," said Yasbeck, who has just released her powerful memoir With Love and Laughter, John Ritter (Simon & Schuster, Sept. 7, 2010).
Directing the new program is Dianna M. Milewicz, M.D., Ph.D., a recognized leader in aortic disease research, the President George H.W. Bush Chair in Cardiovascular Research and director of the Division of Medical Genetics at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, part of UTHealth.
"We are honored and excited that Amy has allowed us to establish this very important research program at UTHealth in John Ritter's name," said Milewicz, who has discovered four of the genes involved in causing a predisposition for thoracic aortic aneurysms and dissections inherited in families. "This program will bring attention to this life-threatening disease and will allow us to accelerate our research to prevent premature deaths due to aortic dissection through identifying genes that predispose to the disease. In addition, identifying the genes that cause the disease is the first step to understanding why the disease occurs and how to stop it in patients through new therapies."
John Ritter, 54, died from an undiagnosed aortic dissection on Sept. 11, 2003 after he experienced chest pain while taping his ABC hit comedy "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter." Yasbeck formed the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health that year. She contacted Milewicz, who encouraged Tom Ritter, John's brother, to have his aorta scanned because of a suspected familial link (Tex Ritter, their father, also died suddenly at an early age due to an undiagnosed cardiovascular event). Tom's aorta was already enlarged and he had life-saving surgery in 2007.
"This tremendous collaboration with Amy Yasbeck and her foundation to establish the John Ritter Research Program allows us to further UTHealth's mission of creating a healthier future. We are grateful to them," said UTHealth President Larry R. Kaiser, M.D. "We are proud of the work of Dr. Milewicz and her team, who have taken translational research from the laboratory to the very families who need the knowledge to fight this disease."
The JRRP will build on the collaborative research already underway in the Specialized Center for Clinically Oriented Research in Thoracic Aortic Aneurysm and Dissections in the Texas Medical Center (SCCOR). The $11.6 million research program is funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. There are collaborators at other institutions, including Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute, Baylor College of Medicine, the Texas Heart Institute and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
"We will be expanding this collaborative research group to involve investigators throughout the United States and worldwide, including Europe, Japan, China and South America," said Milewicz, principal investigator and director of SCCOR.
Thoracic aortic disease has ranked as high as the 15th leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for nearly 15,000 deaths annually. It is caused by a defect in the wall of the aorta, the largest artery in the body, which is responsible for pumping blood out of the heart.
The weakness in the wall leads to an aneurysm and ultimately an aortic dissection or tear in the wall of the aorta. Once the aorta begins to dissect, patients are at risk for sudden death unless emergency surgery is done.
If caught early, a surgical procedure pioneered in the Texas Medical Center by Michael DeBakey, M.D., Denton Cooley, M.D., and others can prevent the dissections and premature deaths associated with dissections.
Through their innovative genetic discoveries, Milewicz and her team have been able to test members of families with the familial form of the disease and encourage those with the gene defect to have their aortas scanned and monitored regularly, ultimately saving lives. UTHealth now has one of the largest registries in the world with 600 families who have a genetic link to the disease.
This past spring, the Thoracic Aortic Disease Coalition, which is chaired by Milewicz and includes Yasbeck, launched a campaign to increase public awareness of aortic dissections and released "Ritter Rules," life-saving reminders to help recognize who is at risk for aortic disease so that aortic dissection deaths can be prevented.
SOURCE University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston