By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
NEW ORLEANS – Over his first 25 years in cardiology research, American Heart Association President Steven Houser contributed to the science that showed that the cardiac muscle cells able to survive a heart attack become weakened and so worn out that heart failure sets in. Many clinical trials showed that strengthening these myocytes put patients at risk of sudden death.
Then came what Houser calls “one of my scientific epiphanies.” He concluded that the myocytes surviving a heart attack were indeed weak but it appeared to be an effect of heart failure rather than its cause. He believed the cause was that there were no longer enough myocytes to effectively pump blood throughout the body. And he was so committed to pursuing this new perspective that he dramatically refocused his laboratory at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine.
“Many colleagues questioned the wisdom of my decision, but I decided to go for it,” Houser said Sunday during his Presidential Address at Scientific Sessions, the American Heart Association’s flagship scientific event. “My goal was to learn things that could benefit patients and I felt that this was my best path forward.”
Houser described himself as “an old dog” when he left the comfort of a field where he’d thrived to join a new group of colleagues. It’s been 10 years since the shift, and he remains fascinated by the quest.
“I strongly believe that – given the scientific intellect that’s addressing this problem – new therapies that produce new cardiac tissue can be developed if we follow the data,” he said.
Houser is so passionate about those last few words that they were part of the title of his speech: “Following The Data: My Journey to Help Patients With My Dad’s Disease.”
As for the personal side of it, he explained that during the address.
Houser was in his second year of working toward a Ph.D. at Temple’s medical school, focused mainly on neurology, when his dad became ill.
Bob Houser was a hard-working, soft-spoken husband and father. He skipped work one day because of what he thought was a chest cold. About seven years later, doctors discovered that supposed cold actually had been a myocardial infarction, the technical term for a heart attack, and now he was in severe heart failure. He lived only about another year, dying at 51.
“During his decline, I began my education in cardiology,” Steven Houser told the crowd. “I became hooked. I loved the field and, of course, I now felt a deep personal connection. I switched my thesis topic to a study of failing cardiac muscle. And I decided to devote my life’s work to helping develop the knowledge needed to best treat patients with heart failure secondary to myocardial infarction.”
Houser spoke fondly of his 25 years studying ways to make a failing heart stronger and to prevent lethal cardiac arrhythmias, calling it “an amazing period of new scientific discovery.”
Houser also shared the tale of how he became an AHA volunteer.
It all started with an idea to study fundamental aspects of how cardiac muscle cells change during heart failure. He sought funding from the National Institutes of Health, but was rejected. So he tried again. And a third time.
“My score got worse with each resubmission,” he said, laughing. “I was undeterred. I took my ideas to what was then the Philadelphia Chapter of the AHA and sought the equivalent of the current Scientist Development Grant. My grant was awarded on the first submission. I received the grand sum of $7,500.”
Houser also gained the confidence to pitch another project to the NIH. It was accepted, and he’s been funded by the federal agency ever since, receiving research grants totaling more than $25 million.
That early support from the AHA prompted Houser to learn more about the organization. Liking what he saw, he began taking on various roles. On July 1, he became the 80th President and the first Ph.D. Basic Scientist to hold the position.
Houser spoke about the three areas of emphasis for his tenure: scientific discovery, developing the next generation of cardiovascular scientists and prevention of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. He capped his address by urging colleagues to pursue each of these areas.
“Today, we have unprecedented opportunities to improve people’s health,” he said. “I urge you to find new ways to help someone live their life free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. Something brought you to Scientific Sessions. Whatever that motivation is, let this meeting continue to stoke it, and to inspire you.”