The AHA’s A-TRAC was created with a five-year, $19.7 million grant in 2013 from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Tobacco Regulatory Science program. The center has experts at various sites researching tobacco issues to inform the regulatory arm of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“Within ATRAC, we have a number of the best universities and best investigators in the world working on tobacco-related research,” said Rose Marie Robertson, M.D., chief science officer of the American Heart Association and a co-director of A-TRAC.
Tobacco was used for centuries with no regulation, said Aruni Bhatnagar, Ph.D. professor of medicine and director of the Diabetes and Obesity Center at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and co-director of A-TRAC.
“Now FDA has the power to regulate tobacco and tobacco products. But it’s not clear what could be regulated,” he said, explaining the ongoing research.
Three major research projects at the center involve: Identifying measurable markers of body function, for example changes in the urine, that will give information about how tobacco products are toxic to the heart and blood vessels; finding new ways such as imaging to detect early cardiovascular injury caused specifically by tobacco use; and discovering how people in vulnerable populations’ perception of tobacco use can influence their efforts to stop smoking.
“We all know for several decades that smoking is injurious for cardiovascular health, but we don’t know why,” said Sanjay Srivastava, Ph.D., professor of medicine at the University of Louisville, who is leading research on the toxic effects of smoking.
Srivastava’s team is looking for markers in the body that indicate how tobacco exposure harms the heart and blood vessels. This can help track down the most harmful parts of tobacco products.
“It’s really important to understand the mechanisms by which smoking causes cardiovascular injury,” said Michael Blaha, M.D., a cardiologist and researcher in clinical epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland.
Imaging now provides insights not available 20 years ago.
“I think the most interesting thing is moving smoking research into the modern era of imaging, so we can actually look at the behavior of blood vessels with imaging tests to see now smoking affects those measures,” he said.
Blaha uses computed tomography, a noninvasive test that uses X-rays to make detailed pictures of the heart.
Thomas Payne, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Otolaryngology and Communicative Sciences at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi, is looking at how people think about using tobacco.
“A lot of people use tobacco now, obviously, and use a variety of methods to quit. But very, very few use the resources that have been developed to specifically assist with that.”
His research aims to improve media messaging so people will be encouraged to take advantage of proven treatments to help them quit.
“Because tobacco use continues to be the No. 1 cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, more research on its impact is absolutely essential,” said American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown. “Together, we can strengthen our understanding of the health risks of tobacco products that can inform, shape and support meaningful regulation and protect the public from tobacco-related disease and death.”