OF THE MIND
TECH INSTRUMENT CENTER
TO BLACK MOUNTAIN
MAY UNLOCK MAD COW DISEASE
SPEECH WASN'T FREE
A major research laboratory that delves into the mysteries of blood vessels and the diseases that ravage them has opened in Missoula’s St. Patrick Hospital and Health Sciences Center.
The new Vascular Biology Laboratory is a joint effort of the hospital’s International Heart Institute of Montana and UM’s School of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences.
“This is a real success story, in terms of collaboration,” says Vernon Grund, chair of the pharmacy school’s Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences. “We really had to be committed — both the hospital and UM — to pull this off.”
Grund says recruiting scientist Steve Black was key to bringing the cutting-edge lab and its roughly 20 high-paying jobs to Missoula.
Black, the new lab’s 39-year-old director, grew up in the tiny village of Cardenden, Scotland. He joined the UM faculty last year, bringing no less than five prestigious research grants from the National Institutes of Health. The grants will total about $5 million over the next five years.
“He has more NIH grants than anyone else on campus,” Grund says. “It was a real coup getting him to come here.”
Black’s grants will boost UM’s already surging pharmacy school, which before he arrived was ranked seventh out of 90 pharmacy schools nationwide for garnering biomedical research funding — ahead of such prestigious institutions as the University of Utah, the University of Southern California and the University of Michigan.
Black came to UM from Northwestern University in Chicago, where he served as research director in the medical school’s Division of Neonatology. Before that he was a postdoctoral researcher and assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco. He obtained his doctoral degree in molecular pharmacology from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1990.
Grund says it’s fortunate the hospital agreed to provide Black with 2,600 square feet of laboratory space because the pharmacy labs and learning centers on campus are full. The pharmacy school — the top unit at UM for earning funded research — currently is raising money for a much-needed 59,000-square-foot addition to its Skaggs Building.
The Vascular Biology Laboratory cost about $400,000 to outfit. Grund says UM only had about half the money needed to proceed with the project, so the hospital agreed to loan the University the remainder to get the lab under way.
“This took a lot of work from the hospital’s International Heart Institute on their end and UM on this end,” he says, “but this collaborative effort is going to be something we can be really proud of.”
Black says the lab delves into the inner workings of blood vessels, with the ultimate goal of combating health problems such as high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and other blood-system ailments.
“We are really pushing the envelope in terms of what is known about vascular biology and heart disease,” Black says. “Our grants come from the National Institutes of Health, so our goal is to try to bring health benefits to Montana and the United States. We want to build a powerful vascular institute that really puts Missoula on the map.”
Black studies blood vessels at the cellular level. He examines the interactions of the various substances made by cells to regulate one another — things like nitric oxide, which makes blood vessels bigger, and endothelin, which makes them smaller.
Most people think oxygen is always good, but Black says it’s horrible when it gets loose in the body. One of his main interests is how increased oxidative stress promotes cellular and molecular changes in vascular tissue, altering interactions between blood-vessel cells.
He also studies the mechanical forces in blood vessels, such as the drag of blood as it flows through veins, arteries and capillaries. The range of his research is extremely broad, but it includes topics such as the protective effect of estrogen in regard to heart disease, the fetal-to-newborn transition that allows babies to start breathing, vascular cell growth factors and receptors, and angiogenesis — the development of new blood vessels.
Black says he is excited to be part of the hospital’s International Heart Institute, where he’ll work with world-class clinicians like Dr. Carlos Duran, inventor of the “Duran ring” used around the globe to repair heart valves. Duran is the heart institute’s president and CEO.
“Clinicians are different than scientists because they are always thinking about the implications with their patients of what we are doing,” Black says. “We should have a good give-and-take, and Carlos and I have already outlined a grant proposal we would like to pursue together.”
Black says his facility probably won’t be fully functional until the end of this year, but it already includes offices, several individual labs and equipment in various stages of readiness. One machine he is especially excited about is a $120,000 microscope, which is fully motorized and environmentally controlled. The microscope actually grows the cells inside itself that researchers intend to view.
Black holds the position of associate professor of molecular pharmacology at UM, and he teaches Montana pharmacy students. But his true love is being aresearcher on the cutting-edge of knowledge.
“Being in the lab is the weirdest thing in the world,” Black says. “It can be tough 90 percent of the time because what you’re doing doesn’t work. But there’s that other 10 percent where you know you’ve done something nobody has ever done before — learned something no one has ever learned. You just can’t buy that feeling.”