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By targeting high blood pressure, USF Health research on kidneys could also help your heart

You would be hard-pressed to find a researcher who knows more about kidneys than USF Health’s Alexander “Sasha” Staruschenko, PhD. But the heart of his impactful renal work over the past two years reveals a potentially exciting cardiovascular benefit – in the form of an over-the-counter remedy with potentially far-reaching significance.

This potential remedy is a common and inexpensive amino acid called lysine – often sold in tablet form to reduce anxiety, prevent cold sores, improve calcium absorption and promote wound healing. The work of Dr. Staruschenko and his fellow researchers points to possible life-changing use: reducing kidney damage and high blood pressure.

“One of our main discoveries is that lysine – an essential amino acid – is critical for normal kidney function,” said Dr. Staruschenko, a professor of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology and director of the Hypertension and Kidney Research Center in the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

And why should you care? Because your kidneys are far more critical to your overall health than many people realize – as Dr. Staruschenko points out. 

“Let’s start with why we need kidneys,” he said. “Many people probably think that kidneys are not that important. They’re not the heart, brain, or other vital organs. We have two kidneys, so who cares, right? But in reality, the kidney plays an important role in controlling your blood pressure (of course, together with other organs). Our research revealed that lysine might be beneficial for proper kidney function, thus helping to maintain normal blood pressure.”

Dr. Staruschenko and an international research team detailed these findings in the science journal Nature Communications in a paper entitled, “Accelerated lysine metabolism conveys kidney protection in salt-sensitive hypertension.” Dr. Staruschenko served as the senior author. 

He is past chair of the Kidney in Cardiovascular Disease Council of the American Heart Association, deputy editor of the American Journal Physiology: Renal Physiology, and his research has been recognized nationally with a multitude of honors, including the American Society of Nephrology Distinguished Researcher Award. Meanwhile, his busy lab is dedicated to gaining a greater understanding of the role kidneys play in blood pressure control and chronic kidney disease (CKD).

Given that one in 10 people in developed countries suffer from kidney diseases – and that one-third of CKD cases are caused by hypertension – the lab’s work is paramount.

Kidneys, Dr. Staruschenko explains, maintain constant levels of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and calcium and use specialized ion channels to transport and regulate these minerals. Some channels are able to control blood pressure, which is a key area of his study since high blood pressure and diabetic kidney disease, a form of CKD, are the leading causes of kidney failure in the U.S.

That’s why his research and the results of this paper raise hopes for new avenues of treatment. The study demonstrated that taking lysine effectively protects the kidneys and prevents hypertension. While most experiments were conducted in a rat model, a small pilot study also pointed to similar results in humans.

That does not mean people should run out and buy bottles of lysine from the nearest drug or health food store. It only underscores that trials with rodents have yielded encouraging signs, but more testing is needed with humans and other rodent models to determine the depth of lysine’s effectiveness. One of the key factors in the research involves two different forms of hypertension: salt-resistant and salt-sensitive. 

“All of us consume more salt than is recommended, but some respond to it more than others,” Dr. Staruschenko explained. “Some individuals who are salt resistant can consume a higher level of sodium in their food and maintain normal blood pressure. It’s about half the people – the other half are salt-sensitive and can develop hypertension from extensive salt intake.”

That is where the promising benefits of lysine come in. “We specifically show that lysine is protective in salt-sensitive hypertension,” he said. “When it’s given to rodents with salt-induced hypertension, it prevents the progression and magnitude of hypertension.”

The key now, Dr. Staruschenko said, is obtaining more funding to expand the research, as well as to do a pilot study that would include more clinical testing involving humans. Some collaborators, in fact, have already started recruiting patients for new studies.

“Academic research cannot survive without funding; everything is very expensive in biomedical research,” he said. “Regarding this project, the industry is not interested in this particular study, because it’s a supplement that’s available over the counter. Thus, they can’t get a patent and make any money.” Therefore, federal, non-profit, or philanthropic organizations could support such lines of investigation.

In the meantime, his affiliation with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and work benefitting veterans with kidney disease has led to valuable financial assistance.

“I was able to get a VA Merit Award, which has supported this line of research,” he said. “It is very relevant to veterans – these are people who are susceptible to hypertension, people with diabetes, people on dialysis, and people with different degrees of kidney function.  The fact is that the cost of dialysis alone is almost equivalent to the entire budget of the National Institutes of Health, the primary federal funding agency for biomedical and health-related research in the United States..”

Dr. Staruschenko is originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, which gave its name to St. Petersburg, Florida. His research career began when he completed his PhD in cell biology at the Institute of Cytology, Russian Academy of Science, in 2003. He considered continuing his education in Russia or perhaps Europe, but instead decided to make a major leap and come to the United States. He had never been to America, so he decided to make an exploratory visit, spending three weeks seeing New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Dallas. “After that trip, I thought, ‘I can live and work in this country,’ ” he said. 

Not long after that, he received an offer from the University of Texas Health San Antonio to do his post-doctoral fellowship. Communication was an issue at first, given his thick Russian accent and his supervisor’s Texas drawl.  “We realized quickly that he didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand him, so we initially communicated by email only,” he said. “Eventually, we were able to talk to each other, and at some point, he said, ‘Sasha, if you can understand me, you’ll be able to understand everyone!’ ”.

After four productive years, Dr. Staruschenko was hired as an assistant professor in 2007 at the Medical College of Wisconsin, eventually becoming a full professor in 2017. But after nearly 14 years, he was ready for a change, which came in the form of an offer to come to USF Health in 2021 in his dual role as professor and director of the Hypertension and Kidney Research Center. One year later, he co-authored the paper on the role of lysine, which received extensive media coverage in the U.S. and overseas.

“I was very pleased with that, but what’s most important is to see additional research in this area – and not only from my lab or my collaborators,” he said. “I want to see other researchers exploring this area. It is not about receiving credits or recognition. It is about moving this area forward.”

-- Photo and video by Allison Long, USF Health News 

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About Health News

USF Health News highlights the great work of the faculty, staff and students across the four health colleges – Morsani College of Medicine, College of Public Health, College of Nursing and Taneja College of Pharmacy – and the multispecialty physicians group. USF Health, an integral part of the University of South Florida, integrates research, education and health care to reach our shared value - making life better.