Program involves high schoolers in medical research

April 9, 2001

Heather Heilman

The sophomore class at the New Orleans Center for Science and Math will have the chance to do genuine medical research while improving the health of their communities in a new project that is the brainchild of Paul Guth, professor of pharmacology.

Guth is also one of the founders of the Center for Science and Math, a public high school that draws students from schools throughout the city. Students spend half of their school day there and half at their neighborhood school. Guth and Barbara McPhee, the center's principal, had long been looking for a way to involve students in real scientific research. Then Guth heard a talk given by Gerald Berenson, director of the Bogalusa Heart Study, and inspiration struck.

"Dr. Berenson was really the first person to identify hypertension as an epidemic, particularly among African Americans," Guth said.

Thirty-five percent of African Americans suffer from hypertension, and heart disease accounts for 20 percent of the deaths among blacks. African Americans tend to develop high blood pressure at a younger age and are less likely than whites to control it. High blood pressure can be a precursor to heart attack or stroke.

African Americans' greater susceptibility is in part due to genetics, but lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and smoking also play a large role. Hypertension can be controlled by changes in lifestyle and by medication. Since more than 95 percent of the students at the Center for Science and Math are African American, Guth had the idea of sending them out into their own communities to conduct research and increase awareness of the issue.

"Not only will the data they collect be useful, but at the same time they'll be educating their families and neighbors about high blood pressure," he said.

The students come from a wide range of neighborhoods and economic backgrounds and will be able to reach a broad cross section of the community. He submitted a grant proposal to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) Foundation.

The proposal caught the eye of Gabrielle Williams, PhRMA's regional director for alliance development, who loved the idea, particularly since she is an African-American woman who finally quit smoking with the help and encouragement of her children.

"Who better than our young people to tell us to get our acts together," she said. "The fact is our children probably do a better job of modifying our behavior than we do in modifying theirs."

She visited the school last month to present a $10,000 check and kick off the study. The money will buy blood-pressure monitors and cuffs and portable scales. Guth and Adam Hendricson, a graduate student in pharmacology, were also on hand to prepare students to begin their research. Hendricson explained the physiology of blood pressure and taught students how to read it.

Guth explained the consequences of high blood pressure and told students that blockage of the arteries begins around the age of 15. Then students got to work measuring, weighing, and taking each other's blood pressure. The main body of research will begin in the fall. Students will use their family members and neighbors as subjects, measuring height, weight, girth and blood pressure and surveying their subjects on lifestyle factors such as smoking and stress.

Each subject will be tested again after a two-month interval. McPhee said she hopes the study will be ongoing and that students will follow up with the subjects a year later. Subjects identified as having hypertension will be informed about the condition.

"We will have data that could literally save lives," said McPhee. "It's virtually assured they will find people who didn't know they had this problem."

Each student will write an individual paper. And the class will work together to analyze the results and generate statistics. Guth believes the end results will be publishable in a public health journal.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000