Kinesiology researcher awarded $439,000 NIH R15 grant for work in health disparities

Due to a complex interplay of social, economic and biological factors, Black Americans have a higher prevalence of cardiovascular diseases—the leading cause of death in America—than any other racial or ethnic group in America. Black Americans also have the highest occurrence of high blood pressure, the leading risk factor for cardiovascular diseases. Dr. Austin Robinson, assistant professor in the School of Kinesiology and director of the Neurovascular Physiology Lab, is leading a team of researchers seeking to change that statistic.

Robinson explained that mitochondria, often called the powerhouse of the cell, are a major source of cell damage and free radicals, which contribute to high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases. This is evidenced by mitochondrial-targeted antioxidants improving blood vessel function in both animal and human studies, but those studies have included few, if any, Black adults.

Dr. Austin Robinson
Dr. Austin Robinson

“Our central hypothesis is that mitochondrial dysfunction contributes to heightened cell damage, impaired blood vessel function and higher blood pressure in Black adults,” Robinson said. “We also hypothesize that MitoQ, a mitochondrial antioxidant supplement, will attenuate these racial differences.” He added that a lack of research exists in fully understanding the role of mitochondria in racial disparities in high blood pressure and blood vessel health.

Robinson will be working with Dr. Andreas Kavazis, kinesiology professor and director of the Muscle Biochemistry Lab, and Dr. Tom Fuller-Rowell, associate professor in Auburn’s College of Human Sciences.

The team was recently awarded a $439,000 NIH Research Enhancement Award, or R15, for their project, “Mitochondria Dysfunction as a Contributor to Racial Disparities in Vascular Health and Hypertension.”

“We will conduct an eight-week trial with the MitoQ supplement in middle-aged to older Black and non-Black adults and collect additional cross-sectional data in the same population with equal distribution of race and sex,” Robinson said.

The team’s first hypothesis is that Black adults will show higher resting blood pressure and blood pressure responses to exercise and impaired blood pressure dipping during sleep. Blood pressure measures will be related to immune cell function.

“Our second hypothesis is that Black adults will demonstrate impaired blood vessel function, but MitoQ will improve blood vessel function in all races and reduce these racial disparities,” Robinson said. “Our final hypothesis is that immune cells from Black adults will have reduced cellular energy and increased cell damage associated with reduced SIRT3, which protects cells from damage, and increased SOD2 acetylation indicative of cell death.”

With Kavazis’s research focus on studying mitochondrial function, the team will be able to hone in on mitochondria’s role in health disparities.

“My role in this project will be to supervise the mitochondrial function and oxidative stress measures in the proposed experiments,” Kavazis said. “My laboratory specializes in the analysis of mitochondrial adaptations that occur during various metabolic states, and I have all of the equipment and expertise needed to successfully accomplish the proposed aims.”

Robinson noted an important component of the research is that the team will relate blood vessel function, blood pressure and immune cell function to social determinants of health such as neighborhood conditions and racism.

“Unfortunately, many studies focused on racial disparities in physiological outcomes do not account for the fact that race is a social construct. We have to consider issues like mental health, socioeconomic status and perceived discrimination can influence health disparities. This is what makes our collaboration with Dr. Fuller-Rowell so valuable,” Robinson said.

Fuller-Rowell’s research focuses on socioeconomic and racial health disparities, social determinants of health, and stress physiology and biomarkers of physiologic dysregulation.

R15 awards support small-scale research projects at educational institutions that provide baccalaureate or advanced degrees for a significant number of the nation’s research scientists but have not been major recipients of NIH support.