Resolving a heart paradox

U researchers are testing what could later become a “synthetic Band-Aid” for the human heart.

Jessie Bekker

If a surgeon doesn’t open a patient’s artery quick enough after a heart attack, the heart muscle dies. But if it’s opened too quickly, the heart will be injured.

Joseph Metzger, head of the University of Minnesota’s integrative biology and physiology department, is working with a team of doctors and engineers to resolve this paradox. The team is testing a molecule on pigs to see if it effectively plugs holes in the membranes of injured heart cells. If so, it could help prevent further injury from heart attacks.

“Effectively, what we’re trying to find out is a better way to limit the injury that happens in patients that have heart attacks,” said Dr. Demetri Yannopoulos, University assistant professor of medicine in the cardiovascular division.

In two years, the researchers hope to begin testing the molecule in human clinical trials to determine whether the molecule — also referred to as a “synthetic Band-Aid” — can function safely in humans.

With the research, the team has found that the molecule effectively reduces the size of an injury caused by a heart attack by half. The researchers are using the research with the pigs to discover how the molecule works and determine an ideal dose.

The team hopes to publish its results sometime this spring.

Currently, a surgeon will usually repair a heart after an attack by dissolving the area’s clot. But by adding the injected Band-Aid to traditional surgery practices, researches said, surgeons can plug burst cell membranes and in effect, prevent additional injury. Cell membranes burst from an attack’s shock, which reintroduces blood and oxygen to the heart quickly.

“It’s an additional therapy that can further decrease the injury,” Yannopoulos said. “It’s kind of sealing the boo-boo.”

Metzger published results of preliminary research on the molecule in 2010. That study used animal testing to determine if the molecule can prevent heart damage to patients with muscular dystrophy.

Yannopoulos said he noticed the synthetic Band-Aid’s success in 2010 and decided to apply it to heart attacks.

Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Regents Professor Frank Bates said researchers’ next steps — from an engineering standpoint — are to study where the molecules travel in cell membranes, which they will determine by tagging the polymers with fluorescent dyes.

Yannopoulos said the molecule could potentially decrease costs for patients who have suffered heart attacks because it may lower rates of heart failure and disability in their future.

Researchers could also apply the molecule to cases of cardiac arrest and stroke, he said. That kind of application is important because those issues can lead to brain damage.

Bates brings an understanding of the molecule’s specific properties to the team. He said the study’s long-term objective is to understand the molecule currently being used and potentially discover others that could help surgeons.

“If we can help people recover from heart attacks, we’d save a lot of lives,” he said. “That would be pretty satisfying.”