Lorraine Evangelista
“I’m excited about how Pro-Heart is going,” says Lorraine Evangelista, associate professor of nursing science. “We’ve already seen that the diet has resulted in improvements in cardiac structure and function, even showing signs of reversal of the disease process.” Steve Zylius / University Communications

A passion for patient care led Lorraine Evangelista into nursing, but through research she is finding a way to make a greater impact, especially for those who suffer from heart disease.

Evangelista has gained national recognition for her involvement in studies to help people with heart conditions, and her latest effort may produce her most significant research achievement yet.

The associate professor of nursing science at UC Irvine is leading a multi-university study to see whether a protein-rich diet can increase the long-term health prospects for overweight patients with congestive heart failure.

The Pro-Heart study aims to determine if heart failure patients can benefit from a diet in which 30 percent of calories are from protein. The average American gets about 15 percent of calories from protein.

Supported by UCI’s Institute for Clinical & Translational Science, Pro-Heart is, however, more than a weight management plan. Evangelista believes it represents a dietary approach that can help delay the onset and progression of a muscle-wasting condition called cachexia that can affect many individuals with congestive heart failure.

In cachexia, which also occurs with cancer, multiple sclerosis and other diseases, the body metabolizes muscle mass as a protein source, causing muscle atrophy, fatigue and weakness.

Evangelista created the Pro-Heart protocols, which do not include supplements and which stress gradual and reasonable changes to eating and exercise habits, while on the nursing faculty at UCLA. The study recruits subjects there and at UCI, which she joined in 2011.

“I’m excited about how Pro-Heart is going,” Evangelista says. “We’ve already seen that the diet has resulted in improvements in cardiac structure and function, even showing signs of reversal of the disease process.”

Pro-Heart collaborator Dr. Dawn Lombardo, director of UC Irvine Medical Center’s heart failure program, says such studies are important because obesity and diabetes are big issues with many cardiac patients, and a protein-rich weight-loss regimen may prove to also mitigate cachexia.

Lombardo has worked on previous efforts with Evangelista and calls her “one of the few champions in the nursing field who are well known for their contributions to cardiology and heart failure research.”

“Lorraine is a dynamo,” she adds. “She’s a grant- and paper-writing machine with national stature in her realm.”

Ellen Olshansky, professor and director of nursing science at UCI, says of Evangelista: “As a researcher, she’s exploring a really good nursing method to improve health, because she’s looking at a nutritional approach. This noninvasive method can really make a difference.”

She adds that Evangelista, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in nursing at UCLA, will play a key role in UCI’s newly approved Ph.D. program in nursing science, which enrolls its first students in the fall of 2013.

“One of our missions is to advance health-based research, which differs from most other nursing degree programs,” Olshansky says. “More than that, we want to engender a culture of scholarship where our faculty members have active research areas that include the participation of our students.

“Lorraine is a perfect fit here; she mentors our younger faculty and our undergraduate and graduate students, and she’s forged strong relationships with cardiologists in our School of Medicine that enrich nursing science at UCI.”

The National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health supports the Pro-Heart study through grant number 4R01HL093466-04.