Dr. Rakesh Kukreja excitedly leads visitors around the VCU Pauley Heart Center’s renovated Basic Science research lab in Sanger Hall, where he directs a renowned program in molecular cardiology.
Recognizing the important work being performed there, the National Institutes of Health provided $5 million in funding to renovate the lab, provide some new equipment and add an additional 3,000 square feet to the facility.
The highly organized state-of-the-art lab, completed in November, includes an instrument room, a cold room for experiments requiring frigid conditions, a dark room to track fluorescent proteins and separate rooms for imaging, echocardiography, catheterization, cell preparation and tissue culture.
The new space will help him and his colleagues continue to carry out cutting- edge research in cardiovascular research and attract talented young investigators to VCU. “We have to have state-of-the-art facilities in place to remain competitive in our research,” he said.
Over the years, Dr. Kukreja’s research projects have secured close to $18 million in NIH funding. In 2006, he received the organization’s prestigious MERIT Award. Also, the governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, honored him with the Outstanding Scientist of Virginia Award in 2010.
“We are lucky to be in the presence of a world-class researcher like Dr. Kukreja and his colleagues who every day make important discoveries that translate into better care and longer lives for our patients,” said Dr. Kenneth Ellenbogen, the Pauley Heart Center’s chairman of cardiology.
Born and raised in India, Dr. Kukreja received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Kurukshetra University in 1982. He completed a fellowship in endocrinology in France, but always dreamed of working in the cardiovascular field. He learned of an opening at VCU in October 1984. Although he wasn’t impressed by what was then a tiny, overcrowded lab, he was excited by the research going on there and the opportunity “to work with two renowned physician-scientists—Dr. Hermes Kontos and Dr. Michael Hess.”
Dr. Kukreja made an important discovery in 2002—that male erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra can protect the heart from damage caused by a heart attack. The widely prescribed drugs are powerful inhibitors of phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE-5), an enzyme that can cause injury to the heart following a heart attack.
The finding came by accident; some Viagra pills left in the department by a Pfizer representative led to some productive noodling (“a Sunday afternoon experiment”) by Dr. Kukreja and his colleagues. In a later breakthrough, he demonstrated that the medication can also sustain the heart against injuries caused by the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin. The Viagra discoveries he made in his animal lab received international attention and are now being studied in several human clinical trials, including one in the VCU Massey Cancer Center.
He said VCU encourages experimentation. “When I was working in France, I did not have the freedom to do whatever I wanted…If I deviated, I knew they would not like it.” But his VCU mentors, Drs. Kontos and Hess, “were so open to creativity. I think that was very good for me because I knew the only way you can succeed in science in this country is to be creative.”
For VCU’s cardiovascular research team, innovation has led to success—and now, a brand-new lab.
“I’ve been waiting for this for most of my life,” said Dr. Kukreja, with a smile.