Heart research prodigy

A relative newcomer to the research world, Fadi Salloum, Ph.D., has been a rising star ever since arriving at the Virginia Commonwealth University Pauley Heart Center.

Many associations have already taken notice of Salloum’s investigative abilities. He’s been honored with the American Heart Association’s Young Investigator Award; the Elizabeth Fries Young Investigator Award, Clinical Honorable Mention; and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Excellence in Science Award.

Salloum completed his postdoctoral training in “Novel Cardioprotective Strategies against Ischemia/Reperfusion Injury” in 2008 under the mentorship of Rakesh C. Kukreja, Ph.D., director of the Molecular Cardiology Research Laboratories at the VCU Pauley Heart Center.

The focus of Salloum’s research is on myocardial ischemia-reperfusion injury, which is injury caused by heart attack and heart failure. His major interest is in developing novel pharmacologic strategies to combat cardiovascular disease and heart failure.

Currently, Salloum is a principal investigator on a clinical research project involving evaluation of apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in patients with end-stage heart failure. He is also co-investigator on another clinical research project involving prevention of post-infarction adverse remodeling in patients. Additionally, he has an affiliate assistant professorship in the Department of Physiology & Biophysics at the VCU School of Medicine.

He has authored or co-authored more than 60 articles published in high quality, peer-reviewed biomedical journals. He has authored or co-authored three book chapters, more than 70 abstracts and has made numerous presentations at the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology scientific meetings.

Salloum was elected to the editorial board of PLoS One (Public Library of Science) as an Academic Editor in 2011, and joined the editorial board of Scientifica in 2012. He has served as reviewer for numerous national and international biomedical journals. Additionally, he serves as grant reviewer on the American Heart Association study section and as ad hoc reviewer for the National Science Foundation

In the United States, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women. As part of a focus on heart-related research in observance of American Heart Month (February), VCU News asked Salloum to talk about his research, the importance of the research mentor/mentee relationship and his future goals.

What is your specialization and areas of research?

My area of research aims at reducing ischemia-related myocardial injury and its adverse consequences, signals that promote cardiac cell death, inflammation and left ventricular dysfunction.

I find this field very compelling because cardiovascular disease unfortunately remains the No. 1 killer in both men and women in the world. Despite significant advances in the management of acute myocardial infarction, or heart attack, whereby survival following an event has significantly improved over the past few decades, the incidence of heart failure did not decrease but is actually paradoxically increasing. Therefore, there is a need for more intense research efforts to protect the heart following a heart attack and prevent it from failing.

Since establishing my independent research program, I have been studying the cardioprotective effects of a small gaseous molecule, hydrogen sulfide, in the setting of myocardial infarction-induced heart failure. Using a basic research approach, we have identified exciting key molecules (microRNAs) that mediate cardioprotection with hydrogen sulfide, thus further endorsing its potential therapeutic benefits in patients. To this context, we are currently evaluating the profiles of these molecules.

You have already received many research awards and accolades as a junior investigator. What are some of these accomplishments? This is unusual – to what do you credit your early success.

Determination is extremely important: willing to try and try again and learning how to endure failure. In research, we face lots of challenges ranging from small technical issues to resources and funding. The key thing is to get your priorities right; use your resources wisely; stay focused; and develop the right relations. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I am very grateful to Dr. Kukreja and the VCU Pauley Heart Center. For all these reasons, I was able to successfully complete my postdoctoral fellowship and join the cardiology faculty to continue my research journey as an independent investigator.

Currently I am funded by the American Heart Association and Novartis Foundation. This grant support is essential in further developing my research program and I am very fortunate to have it.

You mentioned Dr. Kukreja. What has it been like to be his mentee and what have you learned from him?

All branches of biomedical research are incessantly evolving, and therefore successful scientists need to continuously re-invent themselves to stay ahead. What makes this goal achievable is maintaining “laser focus” – as Dr. Kukreja calls it – on your research ideas and hypotheses and providing your undivided attention to the progress of your work.

I also learned to think in big picture terms and appreciated the importance of dedicating ample time to carefully inscribe and publish your research findings. After all, if you do not publish your work, it would be as if you never did it. Dr. Kukreja has a talent of being a visionary and strategic thinker in science. I also learned how important it is to galvanize your creativity in order to be a leader in your field of research and ask the right next big question.

How do you hope your research will benefit human health?

Our hope is to rigorously investigate promising drugs that may halt the progression into heart failure following a heart attack. However, not only ischemia causes heart failure, but the epidemics of aging, hypertension and diabetes also contribute to the escalation of this devastating disease. In this regard, we hope that our findings will also expand to attenuate the incidence of heart failure with different etiologies as well.

What motivates you?

Anticipation. I am truly passionate about biomedical research especially that the goals we set, if achieved, will be very rewarding by bringing us a step closer to conquering heart disease. Moreover, the collegial atmosphere here at the Pauley Heart Center promotes interaction between different disciplines and nurtures the growth of promising ideas. This intensifies my inner motivation and helps me thrive more in my research. Happiness at the workplace is essential to get the most out of every one - and I am very happy here.

What are your future research goals?

My future research goals are to continue the search for new strategies to combat heart disease and provide service to VCU and the scientific community. Building good relations is very important for growth as one not only gains good friends, but also excellent collaborators who also contribute towards the same mission. Moreover, it is also quite a pleasure to train graduate and medical students as well as postdoctoral fellows in research, and I hope to leave a great impression on my mentees as the one my mentor left on me.

Fadi Salloum, Ph.D.
Fadi Salloum, Ph.D.