Scripps researchers who are seeking to uncover the root cause for heart attacks and coronary artery disease just got a big financial boost from the National Institutes of Health.

NIH awarded a $7.9 million grant to the Scripps Translational Science Institute of San Diego and Sangamo BioSciences of Richmond, Calif., to conduct the nation’s first-ever heart-based “disease in a dish” research involving nonembryonic stem cells.

Researchers will try to figure out why the 9p21 region of the human genome — known as the “gene desert” because it contains no genes — is so strongly linked to people’s risk of developing heart disease, the nation’s No. 1 killer.

Learning the root defect in the genome would open the door to developing new drugs or identifying existing ones that could help cells revert away from developing coronary artery disease.

With stem cells created from mature cell types, such as skin cells, scientists will recreate patients’ heart artery-lining cells in a dish. Then they’ll use a sophisticated genome editing technology to cut and replace pieces of the genome with the goal of directing certain cells away from a disease state.

“This editing allows us to basically recreate the disease or take it away,” Samuel Levy, the study’s lead investigator and director of genomic sciences with Scripps Translational Science Institute, said in an announcement of the grant, which was awarded to Scripps on July 1.

The “disease in a dish” approach has been used with rare diseases, but the Scripps initiative marks the first time it has been combined with genome editing and applied for a common health condition.

— Kelly Quigley