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MU researcher awarded $3 million to study sleep apnea

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Adhy Savala
About one-in-ten Americans suffers from sleep apnea, which causes people to stop breathing as they sleep.

Rene Cortese plans to take a systemic approach to researching sleep apnea and its relationship to cardiovascular health, a method he said he finds fascinating.

Cortese will apply this approach to his work under a new $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The grant will support Cortese and his research team in investigating the effects of sleep apnea on blood vessel cells, the School of Medicine announced Wednesday.

Cortese, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s pediatrics and obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health departments, began working at the university in 2019. Three years later, he and his team discovered that treatment for sleep apnea can reduce age acceleration caused by the disorder.

“Patients with sleep apnea have a rate of age acceleration that is higher than normal people,” Cortese said. “When you treat the sleep apnea, it’s like you put the brakes on this acceleration.”

Epigenetics, or the study of how the environment affects our genes, is Cortese’s area of expertise, and he has been studying sleep disorders for over 10 years.

“I have this kind of vision where we really see things in a systemic way,” Cortese said. “It’s not only one focus mechanism, but you have to see the whole picture. Once you detect the whole picture, you have to zoom in and go into the details, which is very, very important.”

Sleep apnea affects more than 39 million Americans, according to the National Council on Aging, and it causes other coexisting conditions throughout the human body.

One main comorbidity of sleep apnea is cardiovascular dysfunction. Sleep apnea causes cardiovascular vessels to age rapidly, Cortese said. By targeting and destroying senescent cells — so-called “zombie cells” in blood vessels that stop reproducing due to age acceleration — cardiovascular dysfunction can be mitigated.

Through the grant, Cortese and his research team will study senescent cells using live mouse models.

“We have the models where we can reproduce sleep apnea in the mouse, and also we can track the mechanism by which the cardiovascular senescence is happening, and then we have a way to mitigate it,” he said. “The way to mitigate it is by targeting those senescent cells.”

Since aging is the highest risk factor for every disease, this research could be beneficial in further understanding a number of health issues beyond sleep apnea, Cortese said.

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.
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