It’s in the Blood Vessels
How One Scientist Understands Diseases
By Shavantay Minnis
Taking a closer look at how damaged blood vessels communicate with healthy cells in the body could help uncover ways to prevent a diverse range of disease and illness, according to Claudia Rodrigues, Ph.D.
“Everything we are exposed to ends up in the bloodstream,” said Rodrigues, a new associate professor of biomedical science in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine. “For this reason, the cells that line our blood vessels are at great risk of being damaged, sending harmful signals throughout the body and ultimately contributing to disease.”
Rodrigues, who primarily studies the role of endothelial cells — cells that line blood vessels — in disease development, is conducting three major projects investigating toxicity of chemotherapy treatment in children, metabolic-related diseases, such as obesity, type-2 diabetes and fatty liver and systemic inflammation.
Very few researchers study the toxicity of chemotherapy drugs at the pediatric level. “Children are more likely to suffer from side effects of chemotherapy throughout their life. As young adults they are at higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and even neurodegenerative disorders from cancer treatment.
Her other two projects involve a similar nature.
Working with metabolic diseases, she examines how a person’s diet affects the blood vessels and the impact in organs like the liver, heart and brain. “If you eat a diet high in fat from a young age, for example, you are at high risk of becoming obese, developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. However, we still do not know exactly the early mechanisms involved and how to efficiently revert the damage caused in different organs,” she said.
At the same time, she studies systemic inflammation. Her research suggests that each organ is differentially impacted by systemic inflammatory conditions. “We the need a better understanding of individual mechanisms for target therapy,” she said.
Originally from Brazil, Rodrigues earned a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. During her undergraduate studies, she volunteered to work in a microbiology lab, which sparked her interest in researching mechanisms involved in disease development. She continued her education at the same institution, earning a master’s and doctoral degree in microbiology.
“I never thought I would earn my doctorate, but I did know that I wanted to help people in a certain way,” Rodrigues said. “I fell in love with research and the idea of trying to discover the basis for diseases. It’s what attracted me to become a scientist.”
After earning her doctorate, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis Tennessee, where she investigated mechanisms of blood vessel formation during development, with the ultimate goal of understanding how tumors create blood vessels to support their growth.
Prior to joining FAU this year, Rodrigues spent 15 years as a professor at the University of Miami studying cardiovascular disease. Her research has earned grants from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health, the Florida Department of Health, the Florida Heart Research Institute and the American Heart Association. Rodrigues said she hopes that moving to FAU will bring her closer to her research goals of discovering and developing preventative and therapeutic strategies for multiple diseases.
“My goal is to collaborate with different researchers here at FAU so we can join our expertise and develop studies to tackle different disease models,” she said. “Once we find a way to prevent or reverse disease, I hope one day our findings are taken to the next level so we can help people in need.”
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