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"Pacing Parson" visits Ann Arbor on trek for pulmonary hypertension awareness

He meets University of Michigan heart specialist leading cutting edge pulmonary hypertension research

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Ahead of his 80th birthday, Don Stevenson's walk across America to raise awareness of pulmonary hypertension brought him to the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center.

He stopped Thursday three months into his walk to meet Vallerie McLaughlin, M.D., a U-M cardiologist who is galvanizing the world's medical minds to research pulmonary hypertension.

Today's New England Journal of Medicine article on a successful drug combination is part of the movement of pulmonary hypertension from a type of high blood pressure getting scant attention into an era of rapid drug development.

“The first and only drug available for treating pulmonary hypertension was approved 20 years ago and today we have a dozen treatment options,” says McLaughlin, director of the U-M Pulmonary Hypertension Program.

Combining two medicines, ambrisentan and tadalafil, worked better than one alone in helping pulmonary hypertension patients stay out of the hospital, according to findings from the AMBITION trial reported in today's NEJM. McLauglin was co-author of the article led by Nazzareno Galie, M.D., of Bologna University in Italy.

Pulmonary hypertension, which is high blood pressure in the loop of blood vessels connecting the heart and lungs, can make everyday activities exhausting. It often leads to life-threatening heart failure as the heart works harder to pump blood to the lungs.

Currently patients with pulmonary hypertension are typically given drugs sequentially, with physicians adding additional treatment if patients fail to respond.

AMBITION study investigators found that ambrisentan, a selective endothelin type-A receptor antagonist, and tadalafil, a PDE-5 inhibitor, have a synergistic effect, leading to a 50 percent reduction in hospitalizations.

Rare disease gains attention

Stevenson, a retired Seattle-area minister and former U.S. Marine, known as the "Pacing Parson," felt compelled to support PHA after visiting Betty Mayfield, a fellow church member, in the hospital before she died of the disease. 

Executives from the Pulmonary Hypertension Association, including its executive VP Carl Hicks who lost a daughter to pulmonary hypertension, toured the U-M Frankel Cardiovascular Center from its clinic rooms to the high-tech labs where the diagnosis is confirmed with a right heart catheterization.

The U-M is the first to be accredited as a Center of Comprehensive Care through the PHA’s Pulmonary Hypertension Care Centers program.

The U-M program coordinates a network of heart specialists engaged in molecular biology and genetics research of pulmonary hypertension, plus participates in clinical trials to test new drugs that can improve heart function.

“Keep doing what you’re doing,” said Stevenson to applause by members of a local PH support group. “Because if you can’t breathe, you can’t live.”

Stevenson wakes at 4 a.m., six days a week to complete 25-30 miles a day. He catches up to wife Loretta who drives ahead and secures overnight accommodations. Stevenson is expected to reach the PHA headquarters in Silver Springs, Md., by Sept. 29.

His Detroit-Ann Arbor visit included a stop for the PHA’s fundraiser kickoff for the Detroit O2 Breathe Quarter marathon, which will be held Sept. 12 in Stony Creek Metro Park in Shelby Township.

PHA supports patient and caregiver support services, medical education programs and research to find ways to prevent and cure the disease.




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