New method lets researchers study heart cell communication

CHAPEL HILL -Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are using a new way to study how heart muscle cells communicate electrical and chemical messages. Researchers may use the new application to study what happens during or after a heart attack, when communication between cells breaks down.

Research Associate Barbara J. Muller-Borer, Ph.D., and her colleagues in the Division of Cardiology at UNC's Department of Medicine used a technique called fluorescence recovery after photobleaching, or FRAP, to study cell-to-cell communication through tiny tunnels between cells called gap junctions.

She will present the work at the North American Society of Pacing and Electrophysiology conference in Boston on May 4.

"You take a fluorescent probe, load it into your cells, and shine a laser pulse on some of them," Muller-Borer said. The laser makes the probe stop glowing, and the laser-zapped cells stop glowing.

As the fluorescent probe from surrounding cells diffuses in through gap junctions, fluorescence recovers and the zapped cells begin to glow again.

"The time it takes for the cell to recover fluorescence would be an indicator of how well the cells are coupled," or connected to each other, Muller-Borer said.

Coupling is important in heart muscle cells because the electrical signal that causes the heart to beat travels through them. If they become uncoupled, you're not going to get electrical conduction through that tissue, and the heart will stop beating, Muller-Borer explained. Heart muscle cells can become uncoupled when their oxygen supply is cut off, as happens during a heart attack.

Other researchers have used voltage-sensitive dyes to study the flow of electrical signals through heart tissue.

"The problem with some of those dyes is they're pretty toxic," Muller-Borer said. "So once you flash the cells with the laser, the dyes become toxic and the cells di

Contact: Leslie Lang
University of North Carolina School of Medicine

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