Retaining the best faculty and enhancing the University’s teaching and learning environment have long been two of St. John’s strategic priorities. Reflecting that focus, Vivek Gupta, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Pharmaceutical Sciences, recently obtained two grants totaling more than $600,000 for his research in treating pulmonary hypertension.
Dr. Gupta’s grants come from the American Heart Association (AHA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The AHA is heavily involved in funding grants to researchers who actively seek cures for cardiovascular diseases, Dr. Gupta explained, noting that pulmonary hypertension is defined as high blood pressure within the lungs. Those who suffer from it experience difficulty pumping blood through their lungs. “It takes more time for oxygen to reach the different organs of the body, the heart works harder, and the muscles become stiff,” he noted.
Pulmonary hypertension is somewhat rare in the US, with just over 100,000 cases reported, “so there is not much incentive for pharmaceutical companies to research it,” Dr. Gupta said, adding that the drugs currently on the market only address the symptoms of the disease and not the underlying causes.
Synthesizing a new drug to attack the root cause of the disease requires several billion dollars and could take 15 to 20 years before it is ready for market. Dr. Gupta’s grant proposes researching existing medications that could have a potential positive impact on the disease.
The AHA grant will screen drugs already approved by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) against cells isolated from patients who suffer from the disease and observe the drugs’ impact on pulmonary hypertension symptoms. Instead of a 15 to 20 year process, Dr. Gupta said the potential exists for it to take only two to three years to reach the market. The drugs will be screened using robotics, which could reduce the cost by 60 to 70 percent. The grant is for two years, and funding is for $154,000.
The NIH grant is derived from research Dr. Gupta already conducted regarding the antimalarial drug Amodiaquine for treating pulmonary hypertension. Amodiaquine was approved by the FDA in 1948 to treat resistant forms of malaria. “We know it works,” he stressed. “We do not know how.” Due to this grant, Dr. Gupta said he will be able to conduct preclinical trials to test its efficacy. The hope is that it will reverse the effects. The grant is for three years and totals $492,000.
The money from the grants will fund assistantships for students. “Education is a large part of these grants,” Dr. Gupta asserted. “We want to make students more interested in research so they understand what is going on and why it is going on. We want them to see scientific research as a career.” The grants cover expenses for one visiting scholar, two graduate students, and two to three undergraduate students, Dr. Gupta noted. The remaining funds cover supplies and other essentials.
Originally from India, Dr. Gupta came to St. John’s in the fall of 2016 from Keck Graduate Institute School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Claremont, CA. “I moved to St. John’s for better opportunities,” he observed. “It has been great. I do not think there is another college or university that provides as much support as St. John’s does. It keeps giving, and it keeps supporting.”
More than $11 million in grant funding was received by St. John’s faculty in 2017. Dr. Gupta strongly believes that one reason he received these grants is because he was able to prove St. John’s staunch commitment to his research, undergraduate education, and undergraduate training. “The institutional support has been phenomenal.”