HSCI iPS Core partners with the Framingham Heart Study

Three years ago, when the subject of creating a core facility for the creation, storage, and distribution of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells was first discussed at HSCI, Principal Faculty member Chad Cowan, PhD, was skeptical at best.

“I was at the farthest extreme, saying it was crazy,” Cowan recalled. “I said no one was going to use it; it wasn’t going to be useful to the community; it just didn’t make sense to me. My reward, of course, was to be named Director of the Core. And I’ve learned over the past two-and-a-half years that it’s scientifically empowering. It’s not only of use to our community, but also to scientists around the world, where we’ve distributed iPS cell lines to people studying Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and a number of other diseases.”

Recognizing the Core’s unique expertise, the National Institute of Health recently funded a five-year collaboration between HSCI scientists and one of the best-known, most productive research endeavors in the world, the Framingham Heart Study (FHS).

Since it was established in 1948 in nearby Framingham, Massachusetts, FHS has made many landmark discoveries about the development and course of the various forms of cardiovascular disease, and has done so the old-fashioned way. By following large populations of patients over the course of their adult lives, examining and re-examining them, keeping track of all their major health-related behaviors, and studying how those behaviors correlate with the development of heart disease, FHS has identified the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

The Study began with 5,209 men and women between the ages of 30 and 62, and then in 1971, FHS recruited 5,124 of the original participants’ adult children and their spouses to participate in similar examinations. Three thousand members of this offspring-cohort will provide the samples that researchers at the HSCI iPS Core will use to create iPS cell lines, which can then be used to study the molecular basis of diseases and conditions including diabetes, stroke, and heart attack.

As part of the NIH-funded project these newly minted cell lines will first be used in conjunction with the participants’ medical histories to answer an important question about the genetics of heart disease.

The FHS is famous for determining the link between bad cholesterol and heart attacks and it is known that as many as 20% of people in the general population carry genes that predispose them toward high bad cholesterol. By using the iPS cells from participants who have either high or low levels of bad cholesterol and turning those cells into liver cells, which are the factories of cholesterol, the researchers will be able to see if the genetic links to high cholesterol have molecular outcomes that can be measured. A measurable molecular change could signal the possibility of a therapeutic target, which could be treated with drugs and help to lower the at-risk patients’ bad cholesterol.

“It’s a very ambitious plan, but it’s exciting to see that the HSCI iPS Core was seen by the NIH as such a quality core and that they gave us an award of such magnitude to partner with the Framingham Heart Study,” Cowan said.