New studies will soon get underway thanks to a pair of million-dollar research grants announced Friday by the American Heart Association. One project will look at how to match the right drug to the right patient, and the other will attempt to extend the effectiveness of high blood pressure drugs for certain patients.

The two Merit Awards, each for $1 million doled out over five years, went to Joseph Wu, M.D., from Stanford University School of Medicine and Garret FitzGerald, M.D., from the University of Pennsylvania.

Ivor Benjamin, M.D., chairs the AHA’s research committee and said the goal is to support “visionary leaders.”

“[These] competitive research programs are pushing the boundaries of their respective disciplines by undertaking high-risk projects whose outcomes could revolutionize the treatment for new classes of blood pressure medications and our approaches for clinical trials in the era of precision medicine,” said Benjamin, professor and director of the Cardiovascular Center at Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin.

Joseph Wu, M.D., is director of Stanford Cardiovascular Institute.

Joseph Wu, M.D., is director of Stanford Cardiovascular Institute.

Wu plans to use information from stem cells to speed up the slow, expensive process of bringing a new drug to market — which can take years and cost millions, sometimes billions. Such a step would also help doctors who “are making educated but still semi-blind guesses” about a drug’s effectiveness for a particular patient, according to Wu.

“Our project has tremendous potential significance for testing new drugs very efficiently compared to the traditional drug screening that the pharmaceutical industry has to go through — a process that has stagnated and become almost too costly to help patients,” said Wu, director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute.

Using so-called induced stem cells and novel techniques to grab genetic information, Wu’s team hopes to launch precision cardiovascular medicine from bench to bedside by matching “the best drugs for the individuals who will be most likely to benefit from them, as well as reduce mistakes in giving the wrong drugs to patients,” he said.

Garret FitzGerald, M.D., is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. (Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce)

Garret FitzGerald, M.D., is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. (Photo by Sabina Louise Pierce)

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, FitzGerald is exploring how to improve blood pressure control over a 24-hour period.

But first his team needs to better understand “non-dippers” — patients who don’t experience the typical decline in blood pressure at night, putting them at an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.Existing blood pressure medications can be modified for non-dippers, FitzGerald said.

“Given the increasing prevalence of high blood pressure in our aging population and in the developing world generally, this program promises to have a considerable impact on global health,” said FitzGerald, professor of medicine and systems pharmacology and translational therapeutics.

He aims to better understand the molecular clock that governs body rhythms and then use that information to modify release rates of generic blood pressure-lowering drugs, extending their effectiveness through the night for non-dippers.

“Such drugs do not need animal testing or new safety evaluation before approval, so they generate rapid, novel, patentable therapies to alleviate suffering,” FitzGerald said.

The AHA’s Merit Awards fund novel approaches to major research challenges in cardiovascular disease that have the potential to produce an unusually high impact. Last year, the AHA funded research studying how heart cells regenerate and another project examining what triggers coronary heart disease.