Microscopic spaces between heart cells may play role in sudden cardiac death

Sudden cardiac death in patients with heart failure is a major concern in the United States, Poelzing said. He will lead a research team to investigate how the microscopic spaces surrounding heart cells affect connections called gap junctions, which allow electrical impulses and small molecules to pass between cells.

The research team hypothesizes that the size and nature of the space between cells can determine the risk of sudden cardiac death and, if those spaces can be modulated, such modulation could be a therapeutic agent to protect the health of heart patients.

“This work is producing entirely new insights and providing the basis for new therapeutic platforms for the treatment of ischemic heart disease and the prevention of abnormal electrical rhythms in the heart, including those that can lead to sudden cardiac death,” said Michael J. Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute who also serves as the vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech.

More than 450,000 cases of sudden cardiac death occur in the United States each year and about 80 percent of them stem from abnormal electrical heart rhythms.

The mechanisms that disrupt these vital electrical communications are unknown, although properties of gap junctions, including their locations between neighboring heart muscle cells, known as cardiomyocytes, are critical for maintaining normal patterns of electrical signaling in the heart.

“The work is part of a larger program at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute that is becoming recognized as among the world’s go-to places for fundamental, translational, and applied research on the nature of electrical coupling between cardiomyocytes and how this process is disrupted in heart disease,” Friedlander said.

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Materials provided by Virginia Tech

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