Alum researches ways to treat blood vessel diseases

Sarah Parker is studying what’s happening inside large blood vessels to find better ways to diagnose and treat threatening conditions like atherosclerosis and aneurysms. A UWM alum who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in kinesiology and psychology at UWM, Parker is a researcher at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles.

She and her team are looking at the molecular “signatures” of these dangerous diseases. Atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque on artery walls, contributes to coronary artery disease, a major cause of death in the country. Aortic aneurysms weaken the arteries and predispose them to rupturing. Cedars Sinai is one of the top three centers in the country studying these types of diseases.

“We need to diagnose them earlier because they are ‘indolent diseases’ – you don’t know you have them typically until they’ve become symptomatic, which is usually pretty bad,” Parker says. “The only treatment we know of is surgery.”

A competitive speedskater

Parker originally started her academic career at UWM because she was a speedskater, and Milwaukee’s Pettit National Ice Center was a top training facility. She initially was interested in studying sports psychology and sports medicine, and had the opportunity to work in labs in the College of Health Sciences and the Department of Psychology. With the encouragement of mentors and faculty in psychology and health sciences, she became interested in the neurological side of psychology.

After earning her master’s at UWM, Parker went on to the Medical College of Wisconsin for her doctorate, focusing on using high-tech tools called mass spectrometers to get a view of biology at the molecular level.

“I was really attracted to that area of research…getting a systems-level view of how biology works. You have all these molecules that come together in particular combinations to drive a process.” Her work led to research in bioinformatics, learning how to convert data into actual knowledge that can be applied to new hypotheses and new areas of biology, she said.

After doing postdoctoral work at Johns Hopkins, she joined the Smidt Heart Institute research labs at Cedars Sinai in 2018. In her position as a faculty researcher, she said, she has the opportunity to work with Dr. Jennifer Van Eyk, one of the top researchers in the field.

Parker has received a prestigious K99-R00 grant from the National Institutes of Health to help support her work. This Pathway to Independence grant helps support outstanding postdoctoral researchers to move into independent tenure track or equivalent positions.

Looking for disease markers

Her research looks at what is going on inside the blood vessels, looking for biomarkers that could indicate disease. The goal is to eventually use the findings to develop treatments that might help some patients avoid surgery. By looking at proteins and other molecules in the blood that are put out by the diseased segments of the vessels, the researchers are hoping to be able to better screen for diseases. “We can use them to identify the presence of the disease in the same way we use cholesterol to screen for heart risk.”

Her lab studies genetics, which can be a factor in the development of these large blood vessel diseases. For example, Marfan syndrome, an inherited disease that affects connective tissue – the fibers that support and anchor connective tissues – commonly affects the heart, eyes, blood vessels and skeleton.

The goal is to use the research to help these patients, with the hope that the findings can be generalized to help others who suffer the same types of large blood vessels diseases, Parker said. “What we find with those patients, we can use to help others.”

Credit to her mentors

Parker credits her many mentors throughout her academic career with her success, including Professor Barbara Meyer and Distinguished Professor Fred Helmstetter at UWM. “Mentors who are really passionate and really good at supporting that passion in you have been a very critical driver for me in my area of research.”

Being able to do research as an undergraduate at UWM was instrumental in developing her interests, Parker said. “You have people who are dedicated to teaching as much as to their research, and you get that really great balance. I’m now at an academic medical center, but I think that experience really helped inform who I was going to be as a professional.”

UWM provided her with more opportunities at a younger age than she might have gotten at a larger, bigger-name school, she added.

“What you get at a school like UWM is really strong researchers who also have the time and energy and passion to put into mentorship.”

By Kathy Quirk, University Relations