USF Health researcher wins $6.25 million NHLBI Outstanding Investigator Award

Physician-scientist Dr. Sarah Yuan will expand her nationally prominent microvascular research program to include COVID-19

TAMPA, Fla.Sarah Yuan, MD, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, has received a highly competitive National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Outstanding Investigator Award to continue breaking new ground in microvascular and circulation research.

Dr. Yuan is the first USF faculty member to receive this particular award — $6.25 million from the National Institute of Health’s NHLBI to support her ambitious research program, instead of funding individual projects, over the next seven years.

Sarah Yuan, MD, PhD

Sarah Yuan, MD, PhD

The NHLBI Outstanding Investigator Award (OIA) recognizes scientists who have a track record of highly successful and innovative research and are considered likely to make major advances in heart, lung, blood or sleep research with the support of long-term, stable funding. Recipients of the prestigious award also demonstrate outstanding mentorship of students and junior scientists and leadership in cardiovascular research.

“I am so excited to receive this award because it provides long-term support for my work at a high level and allows tremendous freedom and flexibility to pursue research directions in newly emerging areas,” said Dr. Yuan, who trained as a trauma surgeon early in her career and has a secondary appointment as a professor of surgery. She also holds the Deriso Endowed Chair in Cardiovascular Disease at USF Health.

“I feel honored to have been recognized at the national level, and want to thank Dr. Charles Lockwood (USF Health senior vice president and Morsani College of Medicine dean) for supporting this application as well as the development of my research program,” she added. “I hope this will help expand our grant portfolio for cardiovascular and lung research at USF Health.”

Dr. Yuan’s research encompasses investigation of the loss of small blood vessel integrity during inflammation with the aim of discovering new diagnostics and treatments targeting vascular inflammation. With the Outstanding Investigator Award, she plans to broaden her research to look for tissue-specific biomarkers that might be used to diagnose and treat COVID-19, a respiratory virus that attacks the endothelial cells lining blood vessels and causes inflammation and damage in the lungs, heart, kidneys, brain and gut.

“Blood vessels supply every organ and tissue in the body,” she said. “So I’m fortunate that my research can apply to many types of disease processes, including investigating the COVID-19 host immune response characterized by blood vessel abnormalities, clotting, and circulation problems in multiple organ systems.”

A nationally recognized leader who studies the interactions between blood cells and endothelial cells, Dr. Yuan has developed cutting-edge theories on the molecular processes controlling microvascular permeability under normal and disease conditions. Through microvascular permeability (or leakiness) – an early step in the body’s inflammatory response to injury or to invading viruses, bacteria or other pathogens – the blood vessel wall allows the flow of fluid, proteins, small molecules, or white blood cells (neutrophils) on their way to the site of inflammation.

Dr. Yuan’s discoveries have significantly advanced the understanding of the complex interplay between signaling molecules and endothelial structures that regulate vascular barrier function during trauma, infection, sepsis, ischemia/reperfusion injury, atherosclerosis, and diabetes. She identified several molecules that play key roles in mediating leakage from blood vessel walls. Her laboratory has pioneered molecular biology and imaging techniques to learn more about how the vascular barrier malfunctions, which can lead to excessive leaking of fluid and proteins from blood vessels, tissue swelling and ultimately organ failure.

Dr. Yuan’s laboratory has pioneered molecular biology and imaging techniques to learn more about the permeability of tiny blood vessels and how the vascular barrier malfunctions. She uses the state-of-the-art resources at USF Health’s Muma Advanced Microscopy and Cell Imaging Core facility.

Throughout her career Dr. Yuan has emphasized the translational value of research work that links novel molecular findings to the physiological processes underlying injury and illness through rigorous analysis of human models of disease, as well as animal models and cell cultures. Using trauma patient blood samples, Dr. Yuan is collaborating with David J. Smith, MD, professor and chair of the USF Health Department of Plastic Surgery, to identify novel diagnostic markers of inflammatory injury that might better guide the precision treatment of trauma and burns, as well as prevent secondary infection and other complications.

Dr. Yuan has been continuously funded by the NHLBI for more than 25 years. She is the author of more than 85 peer-reviewed articles in high-impact journals, including Nature CommunicationsCirculation, Circulation Research, Cardiovascular Research, and Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology (ATVB). She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the 2020 recipient of the Eugene M. Landis Award from The Microcirculatory Society.

Dr. Yuan has served on numerous NIH study sections and work groups. She is currently a regular member of a standing NIH study section, Hypertension and Microcirculation, and she routinely participates in NIH grant reviews for other areas, including the Surgery, Anesthesiology and Trauma, the Vascular Biology and Hematology, and the Surgical Sciences, Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering panels.

-Photos by Allison Long, USF Health Communications and Marketing