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Doctoral student recognized for paper on genetics, blood pressure

Resmi Pillai is a lot of things — a researcher, a student, a mother and an award-winner.

Resmi Pillai shows the Junior Investigator Award from the American Physiological Society.

Resmi Pillai shows the Junior Investigator Award from the American Physiological Society.

Pillai, a PhD student at The University of Toledo, recently received the Junior Investigator Award from the American Physiological Society.

She was honored for an article she published last year for Physiological Genomics, a journal of the American Physiological Society; it was cited as the best paper of the year.

“It’s a really big achievement because I worked really hard for it,” Resmi said. “Even more so because I did have a 2-year-old.”

The article highlights her research, which is focused on finding genetic elements that directly or indirectly control blood pressure in rats. This then can be translated to the human genome and the information can be used for personalized treatment or prevention of development of hypertension.

Her report indicates that genetic elements making up the blueprint of an organism may not influence blood pressure on a one-to-one cause-effect relationship. They can sometimes interact with other genetic elements to control blood pressure, which is called epistasis.

In her research, Pillai makes rat models by breeding hypertensive rodents with normotensive ones. The offspring are called congenic animals, and these strains have small genetic segments from normotensive rats that are cut and pasted on a hypertensive rat genetic background.

Their blood pressure is then measured to determine if this small normotensive genetic segment has any elements that change the blood pressure of the otherwise hypertensive rat.

In her 2013 paper, she developed two different congenic strains that had small normotensive genetic segments on chromosome five of the hypertensive rat strain. When the blood pressure of these congenic rats was measured, it was comparable to that of the hypertensive rat.

However, when a congenic strain was developed that had both these normotensive genetic segments lying close to each other on chromosome five, the blood pressure of these animals was lowered significantly.

Pillai now is working to find out how both these segments interact with each other to lower blood pressure, rather than each segment independently doing so.

She works with other researchers at the Center for Hypertension and Personalized Medicine, a lab started by Dr. John Rapp, professor emeritus. The lab is led by his successor, Dr. Bina Joe, professor in the UT Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, who nominated Pillai for the award.

“Dr. Joe is a professor who wants and helps her students to excel in everything they do,” Pillai said.

The lab has five graduate students: Ying Nie, Harshal Waghlude, Xi Chen, Youjie Zhang and Pillai, who help Joe on her research.

“We work as a team in our lab, so although it’s my name on the award, it belongs to the whole lab,” Pillai said.