Pitt Cardiologist Barry London Receives NIH Pioneer Award

Issue Date: 
September 29, 2008


                                           Barry London

Barry London, the Harry S. Tack Professor of Medicine and chief of the Division of Cardiology in Pitt’s School of Medicine, was named one of 16 NIH (National Institutes of Health) Director’s Pioneer Award recipients at the 2008 Pioneer Award Symposium on NIH’s Bethesda, Md., campus. London is the first Pitt faculty member to receive the distinction.

The award gives London, who also is director of the UPMC Cardiovascular Institute, $2.5 million in direct costs from the NIH to conduct novel experiments to better identify patients at high risk for sudden cardiac arrest, for which no reliable drugs currently exist.

London and colleagues will develop two revolutionary techniques to image electrical activity in the heart. In the first project, London will adapt the most common clinical imaging technique, which is two-dimensional echocardiography (ultrasound imaging of the heart), to detect electrical activity of the heart in real time. In the second project, London and his colleagues will develop a modified adult stem cell implant to detect nervous system activity affecting the heart.

He will collaborate with Flordeliza Villanueva, a Pitt professor of medicine and director of noninvasive cardiac imaging and the Center for Ultrasound Molecular Imaging and Therapeutics at the UPMC Cardiovascular Institute.

Villanueva and her colleagues at the center will develop an electrically sensitive microbubble contrast agent, which is a tiny, inert gaseous bubble injected into the bloodstream. When it is applied to ultrasound imaging, the microbubble will visualize electrical activity within the heart muscle.

“London’s concept of using microbubbles to noninvasively see pathways of electrical conduction in the beating heart is an ingenious idea,” Villanueva said. “This project truly embodies the spirit of the Pioneer Award to support high-impact, innovative work,” she added. If successful, the research will then be applied to humans.

NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni said the Pioneer Awards, given to scientists at any career level, and New Innovator Awards, aimed at early-career scientists, “are central elements of NIH efforts to encourage and fund especially novel investigator-initiated research, even if it might carry a greater than usual degree of risk of not succeeding.”

In 2007, Pitt assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics Eva M. Szigethy was one of the 29 initial recipients of the NIH Director’s New Innovation Awards, which carry a $1.5 million grant in direct costs. Her project was titled “Understanding and Treating Neuropsychiatric Symptoms of Pediatric Physical Illness.”

This year’s 15 other Pioneer Award recipients are faculty researchers at the California Institute of Technology; Harvard, Northwestern, Princeton, and Stanford universities; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Santa Fe Institute; and the University of Pennsylvania.

“Highly creative biomedical research, such as London plans to conduct with his well-deserved Pioneer Award, not only exemplifies the kind of great science that we value so much here at the University of Pittsburgh but also, in this case, holds tremendous promise for clinical advances,” said Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine. “Developing novel and innovative tools to study arrhythmias and better identify those patients who are at risk of unexpected cardiac death holds the potential to save countless lives.”

Arrhythmias are a major cause of morbidity and mortality, with more than 250,000 people dying from sudden death each year in the United States. If successful, both techniques will increase understanding of arrhythmias, improve better identification of patients at risk for sudden death, and guide therapeutic interventions. Thus, identifying novel tools to study arrhythmias in vivo and stratify arrhythmic risk would represent a major advance in cardiovascular care.