High blood pressure, which affects nearly half of adults in the U.S., causes blood vessels to be stiff, which affects their function and can lead to further problems in the heart and brain. Such a high prevalence highlights a need for new therapies designed to reduce this stiffness and its effects on cardiovascular health.

Matthew Bersi, assistant professor of mechanical engineering & materials science in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, will use tools from engineering and biology to investigate how this stiffening occurs with a three-year, $231,000 Career Development Award from the American Heart Association. The Career Development Award aims to help rising health care and academic professionals develop the research skills to support and enhance their opportunities to obtain and retain a high-quality career position. 

In people with high blood pressure, the cells that contribute to stiffening of blood vessels, called T cells, can build up in the fat that surrounds the vessel walls. To better understand the role of the fat around blood vessels, Bersi’s research will look at fats from different parts of the vasculature and measure their cellular composition and levels of inflammation to look for any effects that might change the mechanical properties of the vessel wall. His lab has a device that measures the stiffness of vessels surrounded by various types of fat. They will measure this stiffness in mice with and without the T cells, and with and without fat, to determine if fat is necessary for the vessels to stiffen and if the fat’s presence influences T cells to cause stiffening of vessels that normally do not stiffen.

“We think the results from our tests can be used to find new approaches that could change the way blood vessels behave by changing the way the fat is behaving,” Bersi said. “This work has the potential to find new therapies to manage the effects of high blood pressure, reduce vessel stiffness and improve long-term cardiovascular health.”

As part of the award, Bersi will build his research lab, both in size and scope, as well as pursue mentoring from senior faculty and provide mentoring to students working in his lab.


The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 140 full-time faculty, 1,387 undergraduate students, 1,448 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.

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