UTHealth physician-scientist receives AHA’s $1 million Merit Award for stroke research

Louise D. McCullough, MD, PhD, a physician-scientist at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) is a recipient of the American Heart Association's (AHA) prestigious $1 million Merit Award to investigate whether the maternal microbiome influences stroke risk in offspring.

Only two awards are presented annually, and they are given to exceptional scientists whose novel approach to research challenges is likely to move cardiovascular and stroke science forward.

Stroke, a sudden interruption in the blood supply of the brain, remains a leading cause of adult disability in the country. Someone in the U.S. has a stroke every 40 seconds and someone dies from stroke every four minutes.

New approaches to understand what factors increase an individual's stroke risk are urgently needed. We want to uncover how risk factors for stroke are determined during early life. It is well known that events that occur during pregnancy, such as preeclampsia, maternal stress, or diabetes, can negatively affect the health of both the mother and the offspring for their entire lifespan. We are trying to determine how that risk is transmitted to the fetus."

Louise D. McCullough, professor and chair of the Department of Neurology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth

McCullough and her research team will investigate if dysfunction of the maternal microbiome could lead to inflammation that is passed on to the fetus, which then increases the risk of stroke later in life.

The microbiome comprises all microorganisms living within the body, and is part of the genetic portrait of a person. The majority of this complex system lives in the gut. The composition of the maternal gut microbiome can contribute to long-term health outcomes for the mother and child, but patterns of stroke risk remain unexplored.

"This research will help determine if enhancing maternal microbiome, perhaps by changing its bacterial composition, can improve outcomes of stroke in offspring," said McCullough, who holds the Roy M. and Phyllis Gough Huffington Distinguished Chair at McGovern Medical School. "This is especially relevant as the maternal age at childbirth is rising in the U.S., and the offspring and all subsequent generations may be at increased risk."

Using mice as a model, McCullough's team will investigate outcomes for both infant and middle age offspring.

"It is an amazing honor to be recognized for this innovative project, and as ambassador to the AHA to spread its mission: To be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives," McCullough said.

McCullough is the second McGovern Medical School faculty member in a row to receive the Merit Award. UTHealth's Dianna Milewicz, MD, PhD, won last year to investigate the genetics related to life-threatening strokes.

"We are so proud to have a prestigious AHA Merit Award winner on our faculty for the second year in a row," said Barbara J. Stoll, MD, dean of McGovern Medical School. "Dr. McCullough is a remarkable physician-scientist who is world-renowned for her work in cerebral vascular disease and sex differences in stroke. She is a wonderful example of our school's commitment to excellence in clinical care, teaching, and research."

McCullough also serves as the chief of neurology at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and co-director of the Mischer Neuroscience Institute.

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