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  February 18, 2002

Liang Joins Health Center
Faculty as Head of Cardiology
By Maureen McGuire

Cardiologist Bruce Liang's fascination with the inner workings of the human heart started more than 20 years ago, during his training at Harvard Medical School. Since then, he has eagerly pursued research initiatives to improve care for patients with heart disease. He has amassed a formidable amount of research support, including 16 years of consecutive funding from the National Institutes of Health, and continues a strong commitment to translational research - research that goes beyond the lab and brings improvements to patients with heart disease.

Now Dr. Liang brings his research and clinical acumen to the Health Center. In January, he was named chief of the division of cardiology at the Health Center and Raymond Neag Distinguished Professor of Vascular Biology and Cardiovascular Medicine.

Liang joins the Health Center faculty after 13 years at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, where he served as an associate professor both of medicine and pharmacology, and was actively involved with research, patient care, and teaching. He says his new appointment at the Health Center will allow him to continue working in all three arenas of academic medicine, and to further build the Health Center's cardiology program in all three areas.

"Advances in how we treat patients are always deeply rooted in science," he says. "They come from a better understanding of the biology of the heart and of the human genome."

Liang says at the Health Center he plans to "reinvigorate translational cardiac research and strengthen research links to clinical applications." To do so, he hopes to recruit new scientists with expertise in cardiovascular research. He will work closely with the Health Center's burgeoning vascular biology program, led by Timothy Hla.

Liang brings to the Health Center an impressive research background. He is widely published in scholarly journals and led an active research team at the University of Pennsylvania. His research has produced five patents and he has another five patent applications pending.

In recent years, Liang's work has focused on two areas: protecting the heart from ischemia and restoring heart function to patients with congestive heart failure.

Cardiac ischemia occurs when an artery is either partially or completely blocked and the oxygen needs of the heart muscle cannot be met. It is what damages the heart muscle during a heart attack. Liang's research team at UPenn identified a novel protein in the heart that can protect it from ischemia. Further research is needed to fully understand how this occurs.

"This will help us to fight heart disease," he says. "As a byproduct of this research, new therapeutic targets and methods of treatment can be identified and patented, which may be developed as a novel way to treat those at risk for heart attack."

Liang is also looking at the tiny vessels that supply blood to the heart and other organs. His research has found that a key hormone, adenosine, which occurs naturally in the body, could protect heart cells that are injured or deprived of oxygen. The chemical, when acting on heart cell receptors, protects the cells from injury. The same chemical, when acting on its blood vessel receptor, can increase blood supply and decrease inflammatory activity of the circulating white blood cells. Drugs that mimic the effects of adenosine could therefore be used to alter the damaging effect of a heart attack.

Liang intends to further his research on this process at the Health Center. "I believe this line of research will have significance for the diagnosis, and potentially, the treatment of patients with vascular disease," he adds.

For congestive heart failure, a serious condition in which the heart is not pumping well enough to meet the body's demand for oxygen, Liang's research identified another novel protein in the heart that appears important in maintaining heart function.

He is also working on developing new strategies for patients with heart failure, such as the development of a new class of agents that can serve to help augment function of the failing heart, without significant side effects.

Along with his ambitious agenda for cardiac and vascular research at the Health Center, Liang also plans to significantly increase clinical activity within the division of cardiology. He is already recruiting new clinicians, intending to add one non-invasive cardiologist to the division this year, and two more cardiac specialists within the next three years.

Teaching and interacting with medical students and residents is another high priority, Liang stresses. "I feel that I can explain the science behind the clinical issues, help them see the connections between the basic science that they've learned and the clinical problems they encounter during medical school," he adds.

Liang's teaching career began in 1987, when he was an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and was later appointed as assistant professor. At UPenn, he received an award for outstanding teaching from medical students.

Liang is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and completed an internship and residency in medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He completed a research fellowship in medicine at Harvard Medical School and a clinical fellowship at Brigham & Women's Hospital.

He currently spends three or four days a week at the Health Center. He will maintain his office at UPenn until the end of the school year, when his family will move to Connecticut.

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