'Control valve' within heart cells could protect body during heart attacks

"We're at a new frontier of discovery." Brian O'Rourke, Ph.D.

A Johns Hopkins-led research team has identified a type of control valve within heart cells that can be switched on to help the organ survive injury during a heart attack. The work is published in the Nov. 1 issue of Science.

The valve, actually an ion channel on the walls of heart cells' energy-producing structures, offers new information about how energy supplies are maintained in the heart. This could lead to new therapies for heart disease.

"Our results suggest that activating this channel optimizes energy production to improve the heart's overall strength," says senior author Brian O'Rourke, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at Hopkins. "Interestingly, this beneficial effect can be activated by a drug to help the heart cell resist stumbling down the slippery slope to cell death when the blood supply is cut off, reducing the damage caused by a cardiac arrest."

Energy that the heart needs to continuously pump is provided by mitochondria, tiny powerhouses packed inside the cell that produce ATP, a chemical storage form of energy. ATP can be used by other parts of the cell to make the muscle contract. The mitochondria's engine is finely tuned to adapt to changes in workload, like when a person needs to run up the stairs, or to respond to physiological emergencies, like losing blood supply during a heart attack. Ultimately, the ability of the mitochondria to cope with such environmental stress determines whether the individual heart cells, and eventually the person, lives or dies.

The newly found channel, called mitoKCa (a calcium-activated potassium channel), resides in the mitochondria's inner membrane and allows potassium ions to flow, especially when cellular calcium levels rise. The researchers observed its function through four types of experiments. First, lead author Wenhong Xu, Ph.D., isolated mitochondria from guinea pig heart cells an

Contact: Karen Blum
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

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