DMU prof lands NIH grant to study diet, coronary heart disease

Jun Dai, Ph.D., M.D., M.Sc.
Jun Dai, Ph.D., M.D., M.Sc.

People have known for many years that what they eat can have a big impact, positive or negative, on their heart health. Today, Jun Dai, Ph.D., M.D., M.Sc., is looking at a lesser-understood factor relating to diet and heart health: tiny fragments relevant to genetic functions called microRNAs.

Supporting Dai’s research is a one-year grant of $829,851 from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

The associate professor of public health at Des Moines University was awarded the grant to investigate the interrelationships among whole diet, coronary heart disease and microRNAs. Unlike DNA as the genetic blueprint, microRNAs do not code genetic information. Instead, microRNAs “silence” genes in DNA. That means the genes will not be translated to proteins for them to execute biological functions. These non-coding RNAs play an important regulatory role in humans by preventing the production of particular proteins that can increase risk of various diseases.

“Two questions we’re trying to explore are whether microRNAs can be used as a predictor of future coronary heart disease, and whether they have a potential use in understanding how our bodies respond to diet,” she explains.

Diet, nutrition and cardiovascular risk are longstanding areas of Dai’s research. She has investigated “whole diet,” measured as the dietary pattern or diet quality, and its relationship to heart disease. She’s developed a way to assign dietary pattern scores using dietary data. Blood samples are being used in this latest study, because microRNAs are synthesized in the cells of our bodies and then secreted into the bloodstream. Other cells then can take up the microRNAs from the blood, allowing them to regulate those cells’ biological function.

With this NHLBI grant, Dai and her collaborators at several institutions nationwide are working to determine whether specific microRNAs foretell coronary heart disease and, if so, whether they respond to diet. If that’s the case, they can then explore ways that modifying the diet – and, hence, microRNAs – may reduce the risk of the disease.

“I’m very excited to have funds to pursue this research,” Dai says. “Nutrition and diet are key components for good health and disease delay. What do we need to eat every day to achieve that?

“That’s why it’s important to open the window and see if we can find the connection between diet, microRNA and coronary disease,” she adds. “This research is promising.”

Founded in Iowa’s capital in 1898, Des Moines University offers eight graduate degree programs in medicine and the health sciences. It also has a growing research enterprise. From 2013 through 2015, DMU researchers achieved a 73 percent increase in the number of grant submissions and a 360 percent increase in external grant funding. Dai’s latest grant brings the total of DMU’s active externally funded research projects to more than $3.2 million.