The American Heart Association on Friday awarded its first Merit Awards to fund highly promising investigators who have the potential to move a field of science forward with creative approaches.

The awards, each for $1 million doled out over five years, went to a researcher at Duke University School of Medicine and another at Yale University School of Medicine.

“Both investigators are being recognized for their visionary ideas,” said Ivor Benjamin, M.D., chair of the AHA’s research committee and director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

Rather than supporting specific research projects, the Merit Awards support scientists — those who propose novel approaches to major research challenges in cardiovascular disease and stroke that have the potential to produce an unusually high impact. The proposed research must reflect substantially different ideas from those already being pursued, according to the AHA.

In return, awardees serve as ambassadors for the nonprofit in an effort to further its mission.

Kenneth Poss, Ph.D.

Kenneth Poss, Ph.D.

Kenneth Poss, Ph.D., Duke’s James B. Duke Professor of Cell Biology and professor of biology and medicine, was granted the award to study how heart cells regenerate.

“Humans do not regenerate significant amounts of heart muscle lost after an injury like a heart attack,” Poss said. “The goal of our research is to contribute to developing therapies for cardiovascular disease that will improve our own ability to regenerate new, healthy heart muscle.”

They’ll do that by “digging deeper than ever” into the mechanisms by which heart regeneration occurs successfully in animals such as zebrafish, and then apply those strategies to people.

“The potential impact is huge for millions of heart attack survivors. Regenerative medicine for the heart can lead to better heart function, lowered risk of complications and reoccurrence, and improved quality of life,” Poss said.

William Sessa, Ph.D.

William Sessa, Ph.D.

William Sessa, Ph.D., Yale’s Alfred Gilman Professor of Pharmacology, professor of medicine and vice chairman of pharmacology, wants to understand what triggers the beginning stages of coronary artery disease.

“Although lipid lowering and lifestyle management have reduced the number of deaths from heart disease, coronary artery disease still dominates as the major cause of death in people with heart disease, so we haven’t cured the disease yet,” said Sessa, who directs Yale’s vascular biology and therapeutics program. “Our research aims to explore the underpinnings of what initiates the accumulation of fat in blood vessels.”

If successful, Benjamin said, Sessa’s research has the potential to bring new forms of treatment to market that prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Photos courtesy of Duke University School of Medicine and Yale University School of Medicine