Prestigious award for University scientist

Published: 9 September 2008

Professor Mandy MacLean has received the Estelle Grover Lecture Award.

Professor Mandy MacLean has received the prestigious Estelle Grover Lecture Award.

The award was given by the American Thoracic Society for her research into the life-threatening condition, pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). Professor MacLean is the first woman to recieve the accolade

In her award lecture at the 2008 Grover Conference in Sedalia, Colorado, Professor MacLean revealed findings that explain how PAH develops, how the chemical serotonin is involved and why recreational amphetamines can bring on this dangerous condition and how better drugs could be designed to treat what is invariably a fatal disease.

The Estelle Grover Lecture Award is usually awarded to clinical researchers and Professor MacLean is the first scientist working on research to understand basic mechanisms ever to have had their contribution to the understanding of blood circulation around the lungs recognised in this way.  Furthermore, the last time a British person received this honour was in 1996 when Professor Timothy Evans, a consultant in Thoracic Medicine at the Royal Brompton hospital, gave the lecture.

Professor MacLean said: "I am truly honoured to give the 2008 Estelle Grover lecture.  This acknowledges 15 years of my research into how the neurotransmitter serotonin is involved in this terrible disease. When it occurs in adults, it is a disease more commonly observed in women - an added motivation for me. My current research is into why there is this gender effect. I truly hope my research will lead to new drugs to treat this disease."

Professor MacLean is works in the Integrative & Systems Biology department of the Faculty of Biomedical and LIfe Sciences.

PAH is rare but when it occurs it is very difficult to treat and always fatal.  The disease occurs when blood vessels in the lungs become constricted, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood around the lungs.  This prevents the blood from picking up oxygen from the air that is breathed in. The disease is progressive and invariably leads to heart failure (on the right-hand side of the heart) and death.  There are very few treatments available for PAH; the effectiveness of treatments is limited due to cost and only moderate improvements in survival. 

It is hoped that a greater understanding of the underlying biological mechanisms, through basic scientific research, will lead to better treatments.  This is Professor MacLean's aim.  Her research examines the effects of several so-called 'diet drugs' that were banned because of their tendency to induce PAH in patients.  Professor MacLean has used mouse models to show that the nerve chemical serotonin plays a pivotal role in the development of pulmonary hypertension and that these particular appetite suppressants lead to constriction of the blood vessels around the lungs because they activate serotonin.

Knowing that PAH can be caused by problems with this serotonin mechanism offers clues to why certain people may be pre-disposed to developing PAH.  It will also serve as a warning to those taking recreational drugs such as methamphetamine ('crystal meth') and amphetamine ('speed') - known to be involved with serotonin mechanisms - as it seems these can cause PAH through the same route.  Furthermore, this increased understanding of the mechanisms involved in onset of PAH means that there is greater hope that in the future we may be able to treat PAH.

Professor Paul Hagan, dean of the Faculty of Biomedical and Life Sciences, said: "We are delighted that Mandy has received this honour. It is testament to her work that the American Thoracic Society has recognised Prof MacLean's contribution to this vital field."

First published: 9 September 2008