UNC-CH Researchers Develop Promising Heart Research Tool

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Because scientists and physicians don't know enough about the cause of sudden death during heart attacks, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have developed a unique new laboratory tool that promises to provide some useful answers.

Resulting discoveries eventually could reduce the death rate from the more than 300,000 sudden deaths in the United States each year, the researchers say.

"Our new method, which is an experimental model system, should contribute significantly to understanding internal changes in heart muscle cells and their interaction during heart attacks," said Dr. Wayne E. Cascio, associate professor of medicine at the UNC-CH School of Medicine. "That is key information for heart researchers and possibly the pharmaceutical industry, and we are excited about it."

A report on the development appears in the June issue of the American Journal of Physiology. Besides Cascio, authors are Christopher J. Hyatt, graduate assistant in biomedical engineering; and Drs. John J. LeMasters, professor of cell biology and anatomy; Barbara J. Muller-Borer, research associate in medicine; and Timothy A. Johnson, research associate professor of biomedical engineering.

Cascio said the new method simulates in a thin layer of cultured heart cells the conditions that exist between normal cells and those starved for oxygen during a heart attack. That region, known as the border zone, is the source of many abnormal rhythms during attacks.

As a result, the system should be especially helpful in studying arrhythmias -- heartbeat irregularities often resulting from reduced blood flow through the coronary arteries. Arrhythmias, which begin in the border zone, sooner or later degenerate into ventricular fibrillation -- wild, erratic heartbeats that can result in death within minutes if not controlled.

"Trying to understand the mechanism by which these arrhythmias for

Contact: David L. Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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