Grants and Scholarships

Grants and Scholarships

The Foundation for Heart Science awarded a Postdoctoral Fellowship Grant to Dr. Vy Lam at the Medical College of Wisconsin for continued work on a project called Intestinal Microbiota for Radiation Biodosimetry that identified intestinal microbiota (bacteria) as biomarkers of prior radiation exposure. The project aimed to measure radiation exposure as a way to diagnose and triage patients after a nuclear accident, such as the nuclear accident that occurred in Japan in 2011, and coincided with the discovery that radiation used for childhood cancer also causes heart disease. This lab at the Medical College of Wisconsin was the first to identify that a survivable dose of irradiation results in later injury to the heart.

Radiation used to cure childhood cancer oftentimes results in severe health problems, poor quality of life and early death. Survivors face the prospect of early death from the very treatments that initially saved their lives. There are approximately 328,000 childhood cancer survivors in the United States alone, or 1 in 640 between the ages of 20 to 39. Radiation therapy can cause late effect, long term medical complications, the most insidious of which, and the leading cause of non-cancer related death thirty years later is heart disease.

Scientifically speaking, exposure to therapeutic radiation increases relative hazard for developing heart disease by 2- 6- fold compared with non-irradiated individuals. Risk factors for heart disease can be detected at higher rates in pediatric cancer survivors compared with siblings. Survivors are 1.9 times more likely than siblings to be prescribed medications for hypertension, 1.6 times more likely to be prescribed medications for hyperlipidemia, and 1.7 times more likely to be prescribed medications for diabetes. Total body irradiation is linked to a 5.5- fold increased risk of clustering of these risk factors for heart disease, and radiation of both chest and abdomen is linked to a 2.2-fold increased risk for heart disease.

Forty years ago, 3 in 10 children survived a cancer diagnosis; now upwards of 8 in 10 survive. This study aimed to prevent childhood cancer survivors from dying from the very treatments that initially saved their lives.

Additionally, the initial studies funded by Dr. Lam's fellowship led to advances in our understanding of how radiation causes heart disease. The knowledge gained from the research supported by the Foundation for Heart Science led to the recent award of a grant from NASA to determine the increased risk of developing heart disease following exposure to space radiation.