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February 24, 2013

Heart research shows promise

WINDBER — Scientists at Windber Research Institute are trying to make it a little easier to improve your heart health.

The Cardiovascular Risk Clinic grew out of the Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease, which was offered through the institute’s Windber Medical Center for several years.

Like Ornish, the clinic’s participants were provided dietary, physical activity, stress management and medical education and support, said Darrell Ellsworth, senior director for the research institute’s Cardiovascular Disease Reversal Project.

But Ornish’s draconian program required participants to follow a strict vegetarian diet.

“This is easier to adapt,” Ellsworth said. “It is not as strict as the Ornish program.”

The Cardiovascular Risk Clinic does not require an enrollment fee, but participants are required to have several lab tests to measure progress. Although the tests are billed to insurance, there could be a co-pay, Ellsworth said.

Many participants choose to sign up for a gym membership for the clinic’s physical activity component.

Windber was part of the research demonstrating the benefits of the Ornish program through reduced cardiovascular risk factors and improved health measures. Now, research is focused on its own risk clinic to see if the results are similar, Ellsworth said.

“We want to see if they can see comparable change in risk factors and molecular change,” he said.

Participants are followed for five years, with blood tests and reports on lifestyle measures to see if they are able to maintain the improvements they achieve during the four-month risk clinic.

Blood tests measure insulin, leptin and c-reactive protein, which are associated with blood sugar and inflammation levels.

In addition, the scientists measure changes in the participants’ genes by studying the RNA, or ribonucleic acid, produced in the cells.

“We do gene expression on thousands and thousands of genes,” Ellsworth said. “We are really just looking at the RNA and what it means for cardiovascular health.”

Results through the first three years are promising. Windber’s team last year published results showing improvements in the insulin and leptin numbers, adding that “insulin and leptin are important markers of insulin resistance and vascular inflammation in metabolic and cardiovascular diseases.”

The paper was accepted and published by the scientific journal “Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases.”

“The program really is successful at reducing the plasma insulin and leptin levels,” Ellsworth said. “They are really having beneficial effects on their cardiovascular health.”

Another report on changes in gene expressions seen in the RNA will be published soon, Ellsworth said.

“What we are seeing there, the longer they continue, the more the genes change,” he said. “Most of genes are involved in the body’s immune response. Most of those genes are down-regulated, so it means the vascular system is doing a better job.”

The program was launched in 2010 with open enrollment in the community. Although it remains open to the public, many participants are now coming through onsite wellness programs offered in partnership with Concurrent Technologies Corp. in Richland Township.

Metropolitan Life’s Richland facility also is joining the program, Ellsworth said.

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