Roberto Bolli

Updated:Mar 21,2011

Roberto Bolli, M.D.

Toberto BolliRoberto Bolli, M.D., director of the Institute of Molecular Cardiology at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, is one of the nation's foremost leaders in cardiovascular research.

Bolli, a native of Perugia, Italy, realized early on that he wanted to be a doctor.  He enrolled in medical school at the University of Perugia, graduating magna cum laude in 1976. 

That was just the beginning.  While most of his peers were doing clinical training, Bolli did basic research, publishing seven papers in seven months in those beginning days in the lab, realizing ground-breaking accomplishments. 

Take myocardial "stunning," for instance.  Myocardial stunning is the phenomenon in which brief, reversible episodes of ischemia leave behind a prolonged depression of cardiac function that recovers slowly over several hours or days.

In the early 1980s, while myocardial stunning was realized as a common occurrence in patients after cardiac surgery, after acute myocardial infarction with reperfusion, in unstable angina, etc., its causes remained completely unknown.

Bolli had a hypothesis.  "I postulated that myocardial stunning was caused by oxidative stress, namely, by the generation of oxygen-derived free radicals upon reperfusion of ischemic myocardium," he said.  "Initial pilot studies strongly supported this view."

At the time (early 1980s), Bolli was an assistant professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.  His scientific contributions had already been quite significant, in spite of limited lab space and a tiny staff.  Funds for a thorough analysis of his hypothesis on myocardial stunning were lacking, however, so he applied for, and obtained, a Grant-in-Aid from the American Heart Association Texas Affiliate.

"The support provided by this grant enabled me to complete several studies that confirmed the validity of the oxygen radical hypothesis," Bolli said.

Using spin trapping and electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy, Bolli demonstrated that free radicals were generated in stunned myocardium in the intact animal and that inhibition of free radical generation alleviated the severity of myocardial stunning.  This established a cause-and-effect relationship between free radical generation and myocardial stunning in vivo.

Bolli also demonstrated that the free radicals that cause stunning are produced in the very early phase of reperfusion (the first three to five minutes), so that stunning could be viewed as a genuine manifestation of reperfusion injury.  Bolli stated this concept had important pathophysiological implications as well as therapeutic importance, because it implied that treatment started at the time of reperfusion could still be effective in mitigating myocardial stunning.

Bolli recalls that not only was the AHA Grant-in-Aid valuable in proving his hypothesis on myocardial stunning, but it was also "a tremendous morale boost because it was my first competitive grant.  It strengthened my enthusiasm to pursue a career in research and it encouraged me to apply for NIH funding, which I subsequently obtained in 1989.  The AHA grant allowed me to perform the studies that formed the basis for my subsequent NIH grant.

"I am deeply grateful to the AHA for their research support.  In the most vulnerable stage of my career, the AHA grant helped me, as a young investigator, to get off the ground and build my research program.  The support of the AHA has made a major difference in my career."