New College of Medicine Faculty Members Earn Prestigious Early Career Grants

July 20, 2021 | News, Research, UToday, Medicine and Life Sciences
By Tyrel Linkhorn

A pair of newly appointed faculty members at The University of Toledo have received prestigious early career development awards from the American Heart Association and the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.

Dr. Piu Saha and Dr. Tao Yang in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology each received a three-year, $231,000 grant from the American Heart Association to fund hypertension research. Saha also received a $270,000 grant from the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation to study inflammatory bowel disease.

“These are highly competitive awards received only by the most promising of early career researchers,” said Dr. Bina Joe, Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology. “I’m so proud of both Piu and Tao having their innovative research recognized by these awards.”


Saha, a research assistant professor, and Yang, an assistant professor, were previously postdoctoral fellows in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology. Saha was mentored by Dr. Matam Vijay-Kumar, while Yang was mentored by Joe under the department’s pioneering postdoctoral to faculty transition fellowship.

In her inflammatory bowel disease research, Saha is focused on the paradoxical problem of iron deficiency in patients with the condition. Iron is crucial for the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, but inflammatory bowel disease patients frequently have low iron levels. While oral supplements can replenish the body’s supply of iron, they also can worsen gastrointestinal issues.

Saha is investigating why iron supplements cause those side effects and attempting to identify ways to prevent them while still providing patients with the proper amount of the vital mineral.

With the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation funding support, she is investigating an immune protein complex called NLPR3 and a family of gut bacteria called Enterobacteriaceae as potential causes for and therapeutic targets against iron-induced inflammation.

“I envision that this research would, for the first time, demonstrate novel therapeutics that can be utilized to limit or alleviate side effects of oral iron when treating iron deficiency anemia in IBD patients,” Saha said.

In her American Heart Association project, Saha is studying the role of neutrophils — a type of white blood cell — and neutrophil extracellular traps in high blood pressure, with the goal of finding future therapy targets to treat hypertension


Yang’s work is focused on finding new ways to help patients who are resistant to common blood pressure medications by looking at gut bacteria.

About 20% of hypertensive patients are classified as having resistant hypertension, which means their high blood pressure can’t be controlled despite taking one of three classes of antihypertensive medications, including diuretics.

Yang said researchers don’t know the specific reason why some patients don’t respond to antihypertensive medications, but his research suggests it may be related to bacteria living in our guts.

“Our data showed that gut microbiota has a variety of enzymes that can degrade antihypertensive medications,” he said. “This project will investigate how the gut microbiota from resistant hypertensive patients differ from those in the guts of people without hypertension and those whose blood pressure is under control by antihypertensive medications.”

If researchers can identify specific bacterial groups that are breaking down blood pressure medication in the gut before the body absorbs it, it may be possible to target those bacteria and improve patients’ response to blood pressure medication.

Nearly half of adults in the United States have high blood pressure, and only about one in four of those have it under control.

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