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Kansas State University

K-State Success Stories

Dr. Bryan Helwig and Dr. Michael Kenney

Dr. Bryan Helwig

Dr. Bryan Helwig, postdoctoral fellow in the Autonomic Neurophysiology Laboratory of Dr. Michael Kenney, Anatomy & Physiology Department, recently was awarded an NIH – LRP, the first ever such award received at Kansas State University. Bryan is a 2003 PhD graduate in the A&P Department.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Loan Repayment Program (LRP) is designed to attract health professionals to careers in clinical, pediatric, health disparity, or contraceptive and infertility research. The funded application is part of the Health Disparities Research Loan Repayment Program. Research commitments under this program must address a group defined by the Public Law 106-525 as a group in which "there is a significant disparity in the overall rate of disease incidence, prevalence, morbidity, mortality, or survival rates in the population as compared to the health status of the general population." In exchange for two years of research the NIH repays up to $35,000 per year of qualified educational debt, makes corresponding Federal tax payments to the Internal Revenue Service, and reimburses any increased state or local taxes as a result of the LRP benefits.

Applications are evaluated by peer review groups (non-NIH scientists) on the following: appropriateness of applicant’s previous training and experience for a career in health disparities research, suitability of the applicant’s proposed research activities to foster a career in health disparities research, assessment of the applicant’s commitment to research career, strength of recommendations attesting to the applicant’s potential for a health disparities research career and availability of appropriate scientific colleagues to achieve and / or enhance the applicant’s research independence, and the quality and appropriateness of the institutional resources and facilities. Thus the application and award not only reflect the applicant’s proposal but also attests to the research environment within the Department of Anatomy and Physiology.

Dr. Helwig’s funded research proposal was designed to look at factors contributing to the onset of hypertension and heart disease in African-Americans. Over 40% of the African American population suffers from hypertension, a leading risk factor for the development of heart disease. When compared to Caucasians, African-Americans develop hypertension earlier in life and have a 30% greater risk of dying from a cardiovascular-related disease. Hallmarks of cardiovascular disease include enhanced sympathetic nerve discharge and increased plasma levels of the cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6). These findings are significant as it is well-established that the nervous and immune systems display bidirectional communication via cytokines which are able to accesses brain areas such as the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus, a major forebrain nucleus known to contribute to neural and cardiovascular homeostasis. Thus IL-6 may act within the PVN and contribute to the enhanced sympathetic nerve discharge found in cardiovascular disease and hypertension. In order to exert an effect the cytokine would first have to bind a PVN, membrane-bound, receptor complex. Thus the aim of the work funded by the Loan Repayment Program is to determine if IL-6 receptor complexes within the PVN are upregulated in hypertensive and heart failure states and if elevations in IL-6 levels contribute to the enhanced sympathetic nerve discharge found in hypertension and heart failure.