By JAMES DOWD
A family history of strokes and the devastating toll exacted on his loved ones led Memphis professor and researcher Jianxiong Jiang to embark on a study to better understand one of the leading causes of death among adults.
Jiang, associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, recently received a grant of more than $1 million from a division of the National Institutes of Health to conduct a study on strokes. Along with Jiawang Liu, director of the Medicinal Chemistry core at UTHSC, Jiang aims to develop new ways to treat ischemic strokes. Offering expertise in stroke models is Thaddeus S. Nowak, professor in the Department of Neurology at UTHSC.
“I have a history of strokes on my mother’s side and my father’s side, so it’s personal for me,” Jiang said. “That was my initial motivation, and my major focus since coming to Memphis has been research on strokes.”
The overwhelming majority – more than 85 percent – of acute stroke cases are ischemic strokes, Jiang said. Although treatments for ischemic strokes, which include intravenous thrombolytic therapy and mechanical thrombectomy, have improved over the years, risks remain. Treatments must be delivered relatively quickly and even when successful, some patients suffer permanent disabilities.
“When I arrived in Memphis, I began collaborating with researchers to develop new treatments for stroke patients,” Jiang said. “I’m trying to use compounds that can help prevent post-stroke cognitive decline like my father experienced after his stroke.”
Originally from China, Jiang earned undergraduate and master’s degrees there before moving to the United States. He earned a PhD in cellular and molecular biosciences at Auburn University and completed six years of post-doc training in pharmacology and chemical biology at Emory University before accepting an academic position at the University of Cincinnati. He joined the faculty at UTHSC in 2018, focusing on neurological diseases.
“I’m not a chemist, but chemical compounds are necessary for our research so I came here because there are a number of chemistry labs in my department that I can collaborate with,” Jiang said. “There are so many amazing things they’re doing with the development of drugs for treatment and it’s great to work with them.”
Researching treatment options for stroke victims is a passion for Jiang. As a high schooler, his maternal grandmother suffered an acute stroke and was rushed to the hospital, where she died several hours later. Years later his father had a stroke and survived, but suffered effects of the condition for the rest of his life.
“My grandmother died the same day she had a stroke and that was traumatic for our family. My father didn’t die when he had a stroke, but his personality completely changed,” Jiang said. “He had memory and cognition issues, developed dementia and eventually died due to post-stroke complications.”
As researchers continue to work on new treatments, Jiang urges anyone who may have experienced even mild stroke warning signs to visit a health care professional immediately. Even with new treatments, time is of the essence.
“My father had some very mild stroke symptoms like confusion, but he did not take it seriously at first and by the time he went to a doctor, his condition had gotten much worse,” Jiang said. “I’m a researcher, not a doctor, but I want to encourage anyone who exhibits stroke symptoms to go to a hospital and be checked out as soon as possible.”
Treatments have advanced dramatically in the three decades since his grandmother’s death from a stroke, Jiang said, and research continues to provide brighter outlooks for stroke victims. Still, many challenges remain.
“Today we have better drugs to give patients and the outlook for stroke victims is higher than it was years ago, but we still have a long way to go because some treatments continue to have limited benefits depending on how quickly they can be administered following a stroke,” Jiang said. “We’re working to develop ways to combine our compound with treatments to help those who survive and help prevent post-stroke dementia or post-stroke impairment.”
Jiang and his fellow UTHSC researchers hope to further advance ischemic stroke treatment by developing a drug to reduce inflammation and protect neurons in the brains of stroke victims. A longer window of time would be afforded by this treatment, which would help greater numbers of patients and reduce post-stroke impairments.
“In this field there are so many people working on new compounds to offer protection for the brain after strokes and we’re making great strides,” Jiang said. “The advantage of collaborating with people in this department is improving what we’re able to offer patients, and I’m grateful for the ability to work together and share expertise. Collaboration is key.”