Research with a Heart

Profile of Dr. Jonathan Murrow, the first faculty member of the GHSU/UGA Medical Partnership to undertake research.

Researcher brings health home

by Chelsea Toledo

Dr. Jonathan Murrow, outside the GHSU/UGA Interim Medical Partnership Building. Murrow is leading a research effort focused on health disparities. Photo by Chelsea Toledo.

The ongoing shortage of doctors is an issue close to Georgia’s heart.

As cardiovascular disease is responsible for 20 percent of deaths in Georgia—and yet 30 percent of deaths for black Georgians—the state needs cardiologists who’ll address its health disparities.

Those disparities motivated cardiologist Jonathan Murrow to return home to northeast Georgia. Since graduating from Emory University School of Medicine in 2001, the Farmington native has held cardiology fellowships at Johns Hopkins University and Emory and now teaches at the new medical campus in Athens.

“Growing up my wife and I were interested in medicine,” said Murrow, “We always thought that Athens is great, but it would be perfect if they just had a medical school here so we could get involved in an academic medical environment…and it turns out, right as we were finishing our training, they opened a medical school in Athens. So it was a cosmic alignment of the stars.”

The “academic medical environment” in Athens gives doctors like Murrow access to the University of Georgia’s array of academic departments, where innovative research partnerships can form.

“The advantage of having the medical campus in Athens was the future opportunity for collaboration between the medical campus and many of the colleges at UGA… in which faculty concerned with health disparities reside,” said Barbara Schuster, Dean of the Georgia Health Sciences University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership.

Murrow, the first faculty member at the Medical Partnership to begin research, aims to learn more about why diseases such as high blood pressure weigh more heavily on the African American population and the poor. When he interviewed for a faculty position, he sought out people on campus looking to answer that same question.

“I think in clinical practice, you have certain questions that come up. One of those is why are some people—or some groups of people—disproportionately affected by diseases, and vascular diseases in particular,” said Murrow.

Murrow’s research partners are equally interested in understanding why African Americans face a greater risk of high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.

“My father and my mother actually both had high blood pressure. They’re both deceased now. And I myself have been taking blood pressure medicine since the age of 36,” said Deborah Elder, assistant professor of pharmacy and biomedical sciences. “And the only thing that my physician and I could relate it to is that it’s hereditary.”

Elder, along with kinesiology professor Kevin McCully, is collaborating with Murrow to determine whether mental stress is to blame for the disparity experienced by African Americans when it comes to vascular diseases like high blood pressure.

So far, they’ve been able to confirm that mental stress alone can increase blood flow, an indicator of abnormality.

“Unfortunately, lower socioeconomic status is often associated with not eating right, the fried chicken, lack of activity.” said McCully, “Even higher stress is associated with less secure economic environment.”

As Athens-Clarke County has the highest poverty level in the country and 27 percent of its citizens are Black, the researchers hope their findings will improve health on the home front. They hope to shed light on the intricate inner workings—or mechanisms—causing some people to be sicker than others.

“I think the first question in this type of study is to understand the mechanism, and from that, to hope to identify the intervention next,” said Murrow. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a pharmaceutical or drug intervention or lifestyle intervention, but without knowing the mechanism, it makes it tougher to target the problem in a meaningful way.”

Chelsea Toledo

Chelsea Toledo

Chelsea Toledo earned a bachelor's degree in linguistics from the University of Georgia in 2007. She entered the Health and Medical Journalism program in 2010 because of its emphasis on fostering social justice. Currently, Chelsea holds an assistantship in the Office of the Vice President for Research, reporting on science and health-related projects undertaken by UGA students and faculty.

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