Dr. Rakesh Kukreja becomes VCU's first recipient of prestigious cardiovascular research award

With a career spanning nearly four decades, Rakesh Kukreja, Ph.D., received the American Physiological Society’s Carl J. Wiggers Award for his contributions to cardiovascular research.

Farah Sheikh, Ph.D., Chair of the APS Cardiovascular Section (far right) with the 2023 Robert M. Berne Distinguished Lectureship of the APS Cardiovascular Section award recipients (left to right): Patricia D’Amore, M.D., Jiang Chang, M.D. and Rakesh Kukreja, Ph.D.

By Anthony DePalma VCU School of Medicine anthony.depalma@vcuhealth.org

April 27, 2023

Rakesh Kukreja, Ph.D., has dedicated over 38 years to his research in the Department of Internal Medicine’s Cardiology Division at VCU School of Medicine. Kukreja, who holds the Eric Lipman Distinguished Professorship in Cardiology, has been a mentor to more than 90 students and trainees; his research on cardio-protection has resulted in more than $22 million in grants including the 10-year MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH); and he has received numerous accolades, including this year’s Carl J. Wiggers Award from the American Physiological Society (APS). 

Recipients of the award are active members of the APS who have made significant contributions to cardiovascular research and displayed commitment to recruiting and mentoring new cardiovascular researchers in the U.S. and abroad. On Friday, April 21, at the APS’ annual summit in Long Beach, Calif., Kukreja became the first VCU faculty member to receive this honor.  

Coming full circle 

After earning his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Kurukshetra University in Kurukshetra, India, Kukreja completed his first postdoctoral fellowship in biochemical endocrinology at Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France, where he researched estrogen receptors in breast cancer. Inspired by the notable research at VCU School of Medicine at the time by figures like his future mentor, Michael Hess, M.D., and chair of the Division of Cardiology, Hermes A. Kontos, M.D., Kukreja then moved to the U.S. and shifted his research focus from cancer to the heart.   

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, and Kukreja said he wanted his work to have a global impact.  

“There is a lot to contribute to this field, and that is why I have spent the last 38 years, and counting, doing what I’ve done,” Kukreja said.  

After more than a decade of studying the molecular mechanisms and impacts of ischemia, or inadequate blood flow, Kukreja helped discover that the erectile dysfunction drug sildenafil (Viagra) can dilate blood vessels and reduce blood pressure, which protects the heart. This discovery opened up an entirely new area of research for cardio-protection with Viagra-like compounds in several other clinical disorders including heart failure, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. 

Since that discovery, Kukreja and his colleagues also reported the cardio-protective effects of rapamycin, an antibiotic and immunosuppressant that can inhibit tumor growth in cancer treatment. In 2016, Kukreja and colleague Anindita Das, Ph.D., received a $2 million NIH grant to study rapamycin effects in Type 2 diabetes. In 2022 the pair received an additional $2.2 million NIH grant to further study the cardio-protective and anti-cancer effects of combination therapy with Viagra and rapamycin in tumor models of breast cancer. Now, as he works on finding therapeutic modalities to minimize cardiotoxicity associated with cancer drugs, his research career has come full circle. 

“It’s funny," Kukreja said. "I started out researching cancer, transitioned to cardiovascular research and now I’m working with cancer again."

‘Enduring contributions to science’

When Kukreja joined the faculty as a postdoctoral fellow 38 years ago, he never anticipated staying at VCU for as long as he has. Looking back on his career, he noted the accomplishments of his mentors, and said that being the first VCU faculty member to receive the Carl J. Wiggers Award was a humbling experience beyond his expectations.  

“It’s been very satisfying being able to sustain for so long, not only for myself, but for my trainees and fellow faculty members as well,” he said. “I am incredibly honored to receive this award.”  

Arun Samidurai, Ph.D., an instructor in the Department of Internal Medicine, spoke to Kukreja’s impact not just as a scientist, but as a mentor and a role model.  

“His enduring contributions to science and mentoring have changed the lives of many aspiring students, fellows and junior faculty,” Samidurai said.