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Northeastern network scientist part of international research group selected for $75M One Brave Idea Research Award

March 28, 2012 - Laszlo Barabasi, Distinguished Professor of Physics at Northeastern University.

Network scientist Albert-László Barabási, Robert Gray Dodge Professor and University Distinguished Professor at Northeastern, is part of an interdisciplinary research team selected to receive the One Brave Idea Research Award, an unprecedented $75 million award to support the most innovative collaborative strategy for ending coronary heart disease.

The winning One Brave Idea team, led by Calum MacRae, chief of the Cardiology Division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, will work to define the earliest genetic and molecular markers of coronary heart disease, or CHD, in order to prevent the disease’s onset and to build a global consortium to support CHD investigations.

Hundreds of applications were submitted for the award, which was established by the American Heart Association, Verily Life Sciences (formerly Google Life Sciences), and AstraZeneca. It comes with five years of funding as well as guidance, mentorships, and additional resources.

“One Brave Idea is an unprecedented experiment to use a completely new approach to make progress curing a disease that affects an exceptional number of individuals,” says Barabasi, who directs the Center for Complex Network Research and is a founding faculty member in the Network Science Institute at Northeastern. “The expectation is that this novel approach can then be applied to other diseases.”

From discovery to prevention

Cardiovascular diseases are the No. 1 cause of death worldwide, accounting for approximately 17 million deaths a year, or about one out of every three deaths, according to the American Heart Association. An article in the journal Nature Reviews Cardiology reports that coronary heart disease, or CHD, itself is responsible for more than 7 million deaths annually.

One Brave Idea is an unprecedented experiment to use a completely new approach to make progress curing a disease that affects an exceptional number of individuals.
—Albert-László Barabási, Robert Gray Dodge Professor and University Distinguished Professor

The eight researchers on the international team—which, in addition to Northeastern and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, includes leaders from MIT, Stanford, the Million Veteran Program, the University of Toronto, and Boston University’s School of Medicine—aim to discover the characteristics, driven by genes, that are broadly emblematic of coronary heart disease, for example, abnormalities in the way blood vessels constrict or dilate.

They will begin by studying such characteristics in families with premature CHD to identify the mechanisms that launch the disease decades before it becomes symptomatic. They will then validate their findings using newly developed high-sensitivity screening methods to study large, already established and new cohorts, including populations from the Framingham Heart Study and Million Veteran Program. Finally, they will develop preventive therapies that can be tested in large, simple trials.

“Decades before we see the devastating consequences of coronary heart disease, biological changes are happening that can eventually lead to coronary obstruction, heart failure, and sudden death,” says MacRae. “Our ambition is to redefine coronary heart disease by pinpointing the very first changes so that we can detect them in the entire population at an earlier age. We have assembled a diverse core team of investigators who are committed to working across traditional boundaries to transform our understanding of CHD and ranslate those findings into better patient care.”

Plumbing the depths with network science

Using their expertise in the computational and experimental modeling of complex systems, Barabasi’s lab will explore the subcellular as well as the social and environmental networks that contribute to CHD.

I hope this opportunity will not only enable us to develop tools to address heart disease but will provide a blueprint for uncovering the network origins of many different diseases.
—Albert-László Barabási, director, Center for Complex Network Research

For the first challenge, the researchers will plumb the CHD “disease module,” that is, the molecular interactions occurring within cells associated with CHD as well as the genes coding for those interactions. “Understanding these networks will enable us to identify new drug targets as well as currently available drugs that may perturb the disease module,” says Barabasi. These perturbations aim to correct the harmful interactions.

For the second, they will map the social and environmental factors that study participants are exposed to, ranging from the food they eat to their modes of transportation, to understand which ones contribute to the disease and which ones may prevent or control it.

“The One Brave Idea award will allow us to use the full power of network medicine to address both the molecular and environmental origins of CHD and to design novel network-based interventions to prevent and cure the disease,” says Barabasi. “The scale, in terms of patients and resources, is exceptional. I hope this opportunity will not only enable us to develop tools to address heart disease but will provide a blueprint for uncovering the network origins of many different diseases.”

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