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Physician Resource

Researcher Highlight Q&A: Coleen McNamara, MD, Immunology & Cardiovascular Disease

As the director of UVA Health's Beirne B Carter Center for Immunology Research, Coleen McNamara, MD, is a physician scientist whose work focuses on the role the immune system plays in heart and vascular disease.

The goal of her research is to aid in the discovery of immunotherapy that can prevent heart attacks and strokes. Most recently, her research uncovered the role of transcription factor Id3 as a major regulator of atherosclerosis and obesity.

McNamara is also a professor of cardiovascular medicine at the UVA School of Medicine. See McNamara's research interests and selected publications.

See McNamara discuss her work and her answers to our Researcher Highlight questions, below:

What are you working on right now?  

The McNamara Lab in the Beirne B. Carter Immunology Center at UVA Health focuses on discovering how immune cells contribute to cardiovascular disease (CVD). While medicine has made important advances in reducing heart attacks and stroke with lifestyle modification and lowering cholesterol, cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide.

Clearly, other factors are involved, and the immune system has emerged as a key factor. The main areas of focus in the laboratory include:

  • Determining how B lymphocytes can promote or aggravate atherosclerosis, depending on their subtype
  • Identifying the mechanism that regulates specific B lymphocyte subtypes
  • Characterizing the role of immune cell checkpoint molecules in CVD
  • Discovering novel biomarkers and therapeutic targets based on functional immune cell phenotypes in humans with CVD.

What are the most intriguing potential clinical applications of your work?  

Our innovative discovery work is focused on translating it to humans. As such, we have several areas with intriguing potential for clinical applications.  

We're contributing to advancing the potential for vaccination to prevent heart attacks by working to identify the antigens that promote deleterious immune responses that lead to atherosclerosis. We're advancing the potential for cell-based therapy for atherosclerosis by identifying the unique roles of B cell subtypes in either preventing or aggravating atherosclerosis. We're advancing the field of precision medicine by utilizing single-cell analytics and advanced bioinformatics (including AI) to identify human immune signatures associated with CV disease progression and response to therapy. 

What recent discovery/paper/presentation has impacted the way you think? 

Several colleagues in the field of immune regulation of CVD have shown key links between CV disease and other diseases regulated by the immune system, such as cancer. To name a few: 

  • Kathryn Moore discovered that heart attacks accelerate breast cancer via innate immune reprogramming (Nature Medicine 2020)
  • Nick Leeper discovered that blocking the checkpoint molecule, CD47, not only limits cancer but also prevents atherosclerosis (Nature 2016)
  • Esther Lutgens has reported on potential deleterious effects on atherosclerosis by modulating several immune checkpoint molecules linked to cancer and autoimmune diseases (JACC 2018, Cardiovasc Res 2023,

All of these and many others underscore the foundational contribution of the immune systems to the prevalent diseases of our times, and they underscore our need to understand the impact of immune therapy for one disease on other potentially serious diseases.

What made you choose UVA Health as the place to do your research?  

The rich scientific environment and the enthusiasm for translation of novel basic science discoveries to human disease were some of the key aspects of UVA Health that attracted me to start and build my research career here. 

What do you wish more people knew about your area of research? 

The power of discoveries of immune mechanisms in CVD can have a great impact on precision diagnostics, therapy, and prognostication.

How did you become interested in your area of research? 

I was originally drawn to molecular and cellular biological work in the CV system by the excitement of the rapid advances in science, such as sequencing the human genome and the ability to use genetic and cellular systems to better understand diseases. 

I was led to the field of B cells and the immune system in CVD by surprising data generated by my first MD/PhD trainee, Dr. Amanda Doran (now faculty at Vanderbilt). In studying Id3 and CVD, she discovered that Id3 not only regulated vascular smooth muscle cells, but it also regulated the number of B cells that migrated to the artery, and that this impacts atherosclerosis. 

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