New York Tech College of Osteopathic Medicine students Lionel Chong and Nefia Chacko


Future Physicians Attain Research Funding From the American Heart Association

June 20, 2024

Pictured from left: Lionel Chong and Nefia Chacko

Two student researchers from the College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM) have secured the prestigious Scholarship in Cardiovascular Disease from the American Heart Association (AHA).

Each year, the Scientific Councils of the AHA award $2,000 to students researching cardiovascular disease topics within basic, clinical, translational, or population sciences.

For 2024, NYITCOM students Nefia Chacko and Lionel Chong are among the honored recipients for studies investigating how menopause impairs cardiovascular function and calcification impacts blood flow, respectively.

Nefia Chacko

Working under the mentorship of Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences Maria Alicia Carrillo Sepulveda, Ph.D., BSN, Chacko will investigate how menopause leads to weight gain, changes in adipose (body fat) tissue, and cardiovascular complications. The study’s findings will help raise awareness about the negative impact of menopause if left untreated.

Only 15 percent of women receive effective treatment for menopause. If left unaddressed, weight gain caused by menopause often leads to obesity—a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.

“Menopause remains understudied and is often mistakenly viewed merely as a natural, female-specific life event when the ovaries no longer produce hormones and ovulation stops. In truth, it’s a public health issue that significantly increases a woman’s risk of developing metabolic and cardiovascular complications,” says Chacko, an aspiring reproductive endocrinologist. “It’s crucial to research how menopause impairs women’s health, identify the mechanisms involved in menopause-induced adverse outcomes, and use findings from our preclinical research to advance the development of new therapeutic strategies.”

In a rodent model, Chacko and Sepulveda, a vascular physiology expert, will utilize radiotelemetry (the gold standard for monitoring blood pressure), high-resolution ultrasound to measure arterial stiffness, and vascular reactivity to measure endothelial (inner blood vessel) function. They will also analyze specific fat deposits to gain deeper insights into how adipose tissue contributes to the cardiovascular complications observed in menopause.

Chacko follows in the footsteps of several other Academic Medicine Scholars from Sepulveda’s laboratory who have received AHA scholarships in recent years, including Nicole Maddie (D.O. ’24), Risa Kiernan (D.O. ’23), and Benjamin Kramer (D.O. ’19).

Lionel Chong

Chong, an aspiring interventional cardiologist, will complete his project under the mentorship of Associate Professor of Anatomy Brian Beatty, Ph.D.

Studying coronary arteries in cadavers, the team will analyze how calcification—the buildup of calcium salts—impacts blood flow, which cannot be done in living patients.

The research builds upon a study Chong began in 2023 in which he led first-year medical students in analyzing cardiovascular disease in cadaver coronary arteries. Using rodent models, Chong will now replicate techniques from his earlier project, including micro-CT scanning, among others, to study arterial changes resulting from a Western diet, which is categorized by high levels of fat and refined sugars.

“Our earlier preliminary results showed remarkable promise in how calcification in the walls of coronaries translate into internal surface changes and, subsequently, changes in blood flow pattern and efficacy in interventional procedures like stenting. Now, our sequel project will involve a series of studies exploring the impact of well-established cardiovascular risk factors on everything from coronary blood flow and aortic surface changes to bone density and gut microbiome,” says Chong.

In addition to his AHA-funded study, Chong is assisting in a project with one of his first-year mentees, Gazi Husain. In collaboration with Beatty and Assistant Professor Milan Toma, Ph.D., a fluid dynamics expert, the duo will use existing cadaver data to create digital simulations of blood flow within the left anterior descending (LAD) artery.

With his acquired research experiences, Chong aims to conduct large-scale clinical research studies and see his work directly improve the lives of future patients.