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Recap & Reflections: Vascular Biology & Therapeutics Program & Cardiovascular Research Center 2023 Retreat

January 09, 2024
by Kanika Jain and Kathleen Martin

The annual retreat organized by the Vascular Biology & Therapeutics Program and Cardiovascular Research Center (VBT & CVRC) at the Yale School of Medicine took place at the Yale West Campus Conference Center on November 16, 2023. This day-long event provided a remarkable platform for faculty, trainees, and distinguished guest scientists to showcase their research.

The event commenced with a captivating keynote lecture delivered by Elena Aikawa, MD,/PhD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and distinguished chair in cardiovascular medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Aikawa presented an overview of extensive work from her laboratory on mechanisms underlying vascular calcification. She elucidated the intricate dynamics of different types of calcification and their contrasting effects on atherosclerosis, highlighting the role of microcalcification in promoting plaque rupture and macrocalcification in offering stabilization. Aikawa described her lab's pioneering discovery that extracellular vesicles released from macrophages and smooth muscle cells are important contributors to plaque calcification. Their proteomic studies have provided new insights into the contents, regulation, and trafficking of these vesicles. Aikawa also shared how proteomic analyses of both atherosclerotic plaques and calcific aortic valves have revealed common and unique mediators of these pathologies.

She highlighted how these investigations are crucial in understanding the distinct mechanisms and pathophysiology of vascular and valvular calcification. These revelations have paved the way for the exploration of potential therapeutics under investigation by her research group. Notably, selected trainees from VBT and YCVRC engaged in an informal lunch with Aikawa, a former chair of the American Heart Association Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology Women’s Leadership Committee, and a dedicated advocate for women in science. During this interaction, the trainees shared their career aspirations, the challenges faced as female scientists, and navigating complex mentor-trainee dynamics. Aikawa, drawing from her experiences, offered invaluable advice, encouraging open communication and resilience in the face of challenges.

A highlight of the event was the prestigious Pober Lecture in Vascular Biology, presented this year by William C. Sessa, PhD, senior vice president and chief scientific officer at Pfizer's Internal Medicine Research Unit. Following a witty introduction by Themis Kyriakides, PhD, Sessa, the former director of the VBT Program at Yale, shared his perspectives after transitioning from academia to industry. He illuminated Pfizer's diverse projects, offering a comprehensive overview of the drug discovery and development timeline—from preclinical studies to FDA approval and commercialization. His candid comparison of academia and industry, drawing from his extensive experience in both fields, provided the audience with a balanced perspective on their respective advantages and limitations. This discussion, crucial for many navigating career choices, resonated deeply with attendees.

Industry positions, he emphasized, offer a direct approach to addressing the needs of science and medicine, fostering highly collaborative environments where teams work cohesively towards a singular focused goal. However, he noted that this collaborative structure can sometimes limit the exploration of individual innovative ideas. Moreover, within the industry, there's a prevalent emphasis on flexibility but also a need for significant decision-making based on limited data, accompanied by competitive pressures. On the contrary, academia provides researchers with the flexibility to explore their research interests and pursue the most promising avenues. It allows for the nurturing of mentorship, collaboration, and enduring relationships among colleagues and trainees. Nevertheless, Sessa acknowledged the challenges in academia, particularly the competitive landscape of grant writing and the ongoing struggle for funding in the current climate. He highlighted the potential setbacks researchers might face, including the risk of rejection in the field. In conclusion, Sessa stressed the importance of discovering one's unique niche and determining what aligns best with individual professional and personal aspirations.

Faculty members from YCVRC (Lawrence Young, MD; Michael Simons, MD; Jean-Léon Thomas, PhD) and VBT (Roland Assi, MD; and Andres Hidalgo, PhD) presented their recent findings. Their presentations provided a comprehensive glimpse into their cutting-edge research, enriching the event with diverse perspectives and advancements in the field. The retreat also served as a platform for newly recruited faculty, including Hattie Chung, PhD; Stephania Libreros, PhD; and Lauren Biwer, PhD; to introduce their research and plans for their labs, fostering potential collaborations. Additionally, eight trainees from VBT and YCVRC delivered exciting 5-minute flash talks. The event concluded with poster presentations from postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. Overall, this event allowed the extensive cardiovascular research community at Yale to come together to share their research, seek feedback, and engage in invaluable discussions with colleagues.

Submitted by Kanika Jain on January 09, 2024