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Post-Doctoral Fellow Olson Receives AHA’s Roger R. Williams Award

David S. Siscovick, left, and Nels Olson
David S. Siscovick, vice-chair of the American Heart Association Council on Epidemiology and Prevention, presents the Roger Williams Memorial Award to Nels Olson, Ph.D.

Nels Olson, Ph.D.’11, a postdoctoral fellow working in the laboratory of Russell Tracy, Ph.D., professor of pathology and biochemistry, received the 2013 Roger R. Williams Award for Genetic Epidemiology and the Prevention and Treatment of Atherosclerosis from the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Council on Epidemiology and Prevention. The award was announced during the Council Dinner at the Epidemiology and Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism 2013 Scientific Sessions, which took place March 19 to 22, 2013 in New Orleans, La.

The award is named in honor of the work of the late Roger R. Williams, M.D., who founded the division of cardiovascular genetics at the University of Utah School of Medicine and was a pioneer in the field of the genetics of inherited lipid disorders and the prevention of atherosclerosis.

To be eligible for this award, a candidate must be a member of the AHA, the first and presenting author of the abstract, and their work may not have been previously presented or published in any form. The winning abstract is the one achieving the highest average score of all applicants who submit abstracts to the category of genetic epidemiology. The Roger R. Williams Award recipient receives a cash prize of $1,500 and a plaque.

Olson’s winning abstract, titled “Common Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms in the Coagulation Factor XII Gene (F12) are Associated With Endogenous Thrombin Potential via In Situ Activation of the Intrinsic System of Coagulation: the Cardiovascular Health Study,” is coauthored by several UVM colleagues, including Tracy; Saulius Butenas, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry; Nancy Swords Jenny, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology; and Mary Cushman, M.D., M.Sc., professor of medicine. Olson and his colleagues’ work received support from a National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) grant titled “Thrombosis Genetics, MI and Stroke in Older Adults,” led by Alex Reiner, M.D., M.Sc., at the University of Washington, of which Tracy is a co-investigator.

Olson and colleagues’ work utilized a recently developed laboratory test, called the endogenous thrombin potential (ETP) assay in samples from approximately 5,400 people participating in the Cardiovascular Health Study (CHS), an NIH-funded observational study of risk factors for cardiovascular disease in older adults. The ETP test measures the generation of thrombin, an enzyme critically important in blood coagulation. Increased generation of thrombin can result in blood clots, which are the hallmark of such diseases as venous thrombosis (clots in the deep veins of the leg or in the arteries of the lungs), heart attack, and stroke.

The researchers sought to understand the contributions of genetic factors to an individual’s capacity to generate thrombin. For their study, the group analyzed genetic variation, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), with the goal of identifying variation in genes associated with variation in thrombin generation. Results from their work identified variation in one gene, the gene for Coagulation Factor XII (FXII), as being significantly associated with higher or lower thrombin generation, depending on which allele, or copy, of the gene participants carried.

“This was a particularly exciting finding because FXII is the initiating component of what is referred to as the contact, or intrinsic, pathway of blood coagulation,” says Olson. “This pathway has long been considered unimportant in blood clotting experiments in humans. Our results suggest a previously unsuspected importance of intrinsic pathway-dependent coagulation in vivo, and may have important implications in diseases such as arterial and venous thrombosis.”

According to Olson, the laboratory group is currently investigating the ETP assay for prediction of future cardiovascular disease events in the Cardiovascular Health Study, and examining the mechanism for how genetic variation in FXII affects thrombin generation, as well as other components of the coagulation system.

Olson received his Ph.D. from UVM in 2011 and was mentored by Albert van der Vliet, Ph.D., professor of pathology. He is currently supported by the NHLBI-funded Hemostasis and Thrombosis Training Grant directed by Kenneth Mann, Ph.D., professor emeritus of biochemistry.