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ETSU College of Public Health researcher secures two NIH-funded grants in 2019

Contributed • Oct 4, 2019 at 4:23 PM

External grant funding is often the lifeblood for researchers who are exploring new and better ways to improve health and quality of life.

So when Dr. Matthew Zahner, a cardiovascular neurophysiologist in East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health, learned earlier this year that one of his projects aimed at improving outcomes for people who experience heart attacks was awarded $436,800 by the National Institutes of Health, he was excited.

His excitement turned to elation when he found out this summer that he received a second NIH grant totaling $437,225 for a separate project that examines metabolism and cardiovascular activity.

“It has been a pretty good first couple of years here at ETSU,” Zahner said. “To receive two NIH grants in one year is exciting for me and for our college because these grants provide more opportunities for our students to engage in meaningful research.”

Zahner is an assistant professor in the College of Public Health’s Department of Health Sciences. This summer, the college presented him with the Foundation Research Award for his contributions and success in the research arena.

“In the past five years, faculty in the Department of Health Sciences have worked very hard to have unprecedented success in acquiring extramural funding from NIH,” said department Chairman Ranjan Chakraborty. “Since 2014, four faculty in the department have been awarded multiple grants, with total funding in the amount of $3,293,221.

“It is remarkable to mention here that the funded faculty in the Department of Health Sciences are heavily involved in teaching undergraduate courses since the department has the largest undergraduate program in the college,” Chakraborty continued.

“The funding will not only have a significant impact on research productivity of the department, but most importantly, it will also enrich both undergraduate and graduate education in the department.”

Zahner’s first NIH Research Enhancement Award (R15) will allow him and co-investigator Dr. Eric Beaumont, professor in ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, to study the reflex response people have when they experience myocardial ischemia, or lack of blood flow and oxygen to the heart.

“Our hypothesis is that the risk for more deadly heart attacks is elevated when people have increased nervous system activity,” Zahner said.

“We are trying to find the parts of the brain that are responsible for that so when you do have a particular drug or physiological condition, we’re not activating those parts of the brain unintentionally.”

The second NIH R15 grant will fund research to examine how the brain controls blood pressure and metabolism. Zahner and his collaborators Dr. Yongke Lu and Dr. Allan Forsman, who is serving as an interim principal investigator during the overlapping grant period, are using cutting-edge approaches to identify the specific types of brain cells that control either blood pressure or metabolism.

“This study could lead to therapeutic interventions to mitigate the potential cardiovascular risk of obesity and diabetes treatments,” Zahner said.

Zahner, who is only in his third year at ETSU, is currently working on a third, and much larger, grant with Beaumont that examines his other interest: cardiovascular control after spinal cord injury.

Zahner earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of Connecticut, a master of science degree from Florida State University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. He also studied spinal cord injuries in a post-doctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

After his fellowship, Zahner spent five years running a neurophysiology lab to test the safety and efficacy of drugs for Pfizer.

“My role at Pfizer helped me be able to write for reviewers,” Zahner said. “When you’re writing grants, you have to be able to reach a broad audience of people with Ph.D.s, but not necessarily in your field.”

Zahner’s professional and academic background were not the only experiences that prepared him for his research. While he was a student, Zahner also traveled the country, racing mountain bikes professionally.

Although he stopped racing when he began his fellowship in biomedical engineering, Zahner recalls the thrill of the races and says he now gets a similar feeling when he submits grant proposals for his research.

“As a researcher, I get to create my own questions about important problems and try to solve them,” Zahner said. “That’s what I love about research – it’s a chase for answers.”