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Dalhousie Researcher Works To Help Heart Keep The Beat

Over two billion times.

That is how often a heart beats during the average lifetime.

“It’s amazing to me that a muscle — and the heart is a muscle — can do that,” says Robert Rose, a cardiac researcher at Dalhousie medical school.

“No other muscle in our body could contract consecutively 60, or 70, or 80 times a minute for 80 years,” said Rose, an associate professor of physiology.

But for many men and women, an enemy is lurking, waiting to disrupt that perfectly timed beat.

The culprit is connective or scar-like tissue, called fibrosis, that builds up within the heart muscle.

“Many common forms of heart disease are associated with scarring in the heart,” said Rose.

“It affects the ability (of the heart) to pump properly … and disrupts the electrical activity of the heart, which is the major basis for cardiac arrhythmias, irregular patterns in the heart beat, which can be very serious.”

Rose is looking for a way to slow or prevent scarring in the heart, using small proteins that are naturally produced in the heart and body.

Funds from Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation’s 2015 Molly Appeal will be used for this and other groundbreaking cardiovascular research projects being carried out at Dalhousie medical school in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

When the heart beats, electrical signals are generated in the pacemaker region of the heart. These signals then move through the whole heart, causing the muscle to contract in a “properly timed way,” which generates the pressure needed to pump the blood, Rose said.

“When those electrical signals encounter this scarring, it disrupts their normal movement and this can actually be a basis for cardiac arrhythmias. It is thought to be a big player.”

Researchers are now aware that peptides, small, naturally occurring proteins, which function as hormones, play a protective role in the heart, and may be the key to preventing or slowing scarring.

“The idea is if we can figure out how those work, we may be able to make synthetic versions of these hormones that would be very safe and would be even more effective than the ones that are naturally produced in our bodies,” Rose said.

In the laboratory, scientists are testing the effects of these hormones on heart tissue and blood samples of cardiac surgery patients.

“By doing that, it allows us to really get into the true, teeny, tiny molecular mechanisms of how these things work, and that is what we really need to do to understand at the finest detail how they function, ” Rose said

“That is the information that we would need to then go back and think about making synthetic versions that would be better or more effective.”

Funds from the Molly Appeal will allow a team of scientists, cardiologists and surgeons at Dalhousie medical school in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to work collaboratively on heart research. Donations will be used to fund a tissue bank for cardiac research, as well provide equipment and infrastructure for a team of about 20 investigators.

More information is available at mollyappeal.ca.