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Robin Davisson probes the molecular and genetic underpinnings of cardiovascular diseases -- in Ithaca and New York City

Question: How do you know you are in Robin Davisson's lab?

Answer: The postdoc is still wearing an Iowa Hawkeyes T-shirt under her white lab coat.

A new faculty hire in the College of Veterinary Medicine's Department of Biomedical Sciences, Davisson recently set up her lab in the Veterinary Research Tower after moving to Ithaca in July from the University of Iowa with her husband, Cornell President David Skorton. A second lab will soon be outfitted at the Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC), where she holds a dual appointment in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology.

Davisson arrived complete with two graduate students, a postdoctoral researcher, a senior researcher, research papers in press and almost $5 million in grants transferred to Cornell. She also has just hired five undergraduates to work in her lab as well as a new lab manager.

Her research largely intersects the study of cardiovascular disease and physiology with functional genomics, which tries to understand the functions of genes in a cell and how those functions apply to an entire organism's biology.

"I am trying to ask questions about physiology in ways that we were never able to do before, by using new genetic tools," said Davisson. "These new tools are just much more specific in terms of how we can target them."

For example, one of Davisson's many projects looks at how too many free radicals called superoxides (highly reactive and unstable molecules that have no charge) might play a role in overactivating certain brain pathways, which, in turn, may influence hypertension and heart failure. She and her colleagues engineered a virus that encodes for a gene to make a superoxide-scavenging protein. They targeted this virus to a tiny, specific region in the mouse forebrain (called the subfornical organ) that is known to send neural signals to other brain regions that release hormones that impact blood vessels, the heart and kidney. Scientists suspected that superoxides served as signaling molecules in this region and excited activity. The researchers found that superoxide-scavenging proteins prevented certain forms of hypertension. These proteins also helped prevent overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system after a heart attack, which can lead to further heart failure.

In addition to studying high blood pressure and hypertrophy (enlargement) of heart cells and exploring new imaging techniques, Davisson also is a leading researcher in the study of preeclampsia, a high blood pressure and kidney disorder in the last trimester of pregnancy. Preeclampsia afflicts 5 percent to 8 percent of all pregnancies and can lead to fetal death and coma for the mother. Davisson helped genetically engineer a mouse that develops preeclampsia in exactly the way that humans do. "This is a big finding that we think has really exciting implications for understanding this disease," she said. The condition has been poorly understood, and given the delicacy of pregnancy and fetuses, "it's very hard to study in the clinical setting, and there hasn't been an animal model," she added.

Already, the mouse model has led to a new study by Davisson and colleagues, just published in the journal Biology of Reproduction, that provides compelling evidence that it is, indeed, the placenta and fetus that trigger preeclampsia in susceptible women. The connection between preeclampsia and the placenta and fetus was suspected, since the condition clears up after the baby and placenta are delivered.

Davisson said Cornell provides, among many things, outstanding collaborators and experts in areas that feed her work. For example, she noted that in her building are three placenta experts: Doug Antczak, Don Schlafer and Mark Roberson. And at WCMC, where she will spend 30 percent of her time, she is already collaborating with Constantino Iadecola, professor of neurology and neuroscience, who also studies the effects of superoxides on the brain, the sympathetic nervous system and hypertension. Davisson is still uncertain, she said, how her research interests will be divided between her two labs, but those decisions will be guided by the resources and collaborators at each campus.

She also plans to explore the use of "the nanobiotechnology world" at Cornell to fine-tune gene delivery and sensor systems for increased precision (Cornell is home to the National Science Foundation-funded Nanobiotechnology Institute). And on the level of imaging, she said, "We [her research group] are novices when it comes to the world of imaging, and this is a place where much of it has been pioneered by Watt Webb and Warren Zipfel and Becky Williams. These people are the real deal."

With all these research interests, and more, it's a wonder she has time for her other full-time job as the president's wife.

"It definitely makes for a very busy life," she said. "My primary identity is as a faculty member -- as a researcher and as a teacher -- but representing Cornell is also a major part of my life and one that I enjoy very much. I have a chance to learn about universities -- at Iowa and now at Cornell -- all the corners and the interesting things people are doing. It's a complete pleasure and a privilege."

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