UMN researcher finds potential cure for fatal heart condition

A UMN cardiologist’s experimental research may lead to treatment for a currently untreatable heart condition.

Research Assistant Professor Dr. Hong Liu performs an in vivo cardiac electrophysiology test on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. The test is conducted to examine the inducibility of arrhythmia, an abnormal heart beat or rhythm.

Jasmin Kemp

Research Assistant Professor Dr. Hong Liu performs an in vivo cardiac electrophysiology test on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. The test is conducted to examine the inducibility of arrhythmia, an abnormal heart beat or rhythm.

by Dylan Miettinen

Diastolic heart failure currently has no effective treatment, but that could change, thanks to a University of Minnesota researcher’s recent findings. 

Research by Samuel Dudley, academic chief of cardiology in the University’s Medical School, found that magnesium may help treat the heart condition. 

There are two types of heart failure: systolic and diastolic, Dudley said. With systolic heart failure, the heart doesn’t contract well, which limits its ability to pump blood effectively. In diastolic heart failure, the heart fails to relax properly.

In Dudley’s experiment, mice were fed high-fat diets to induce diabetes. All of those diabetic mice ended up developing diastolic dysfunction, a condition in which the heart fails to relax but heart failure has yet to fully develop. Half of the mice were then fed magnesium-infused water. Magnesium can deoxidize the heart cells, which could ease the effects of the condition. 

“If you had a therapy [treatment] and identify [those with diastolic dysfunction] … you can prevent the disease from ever coming on in the first place, rather than waiting until you have it and then treating it,” Dudley said.

Diastolic dysfunction is estimated to be found in up to 50 percent of people over 70. But with no proven effective treatments on the market, a large portion of the population has to suffer with little to no relief, said Mayo Clinic Cardiologist Barry Borlaug.

“Most other cardiac diseases we have treatments for, but unfortunately we’ve got nothing for these patients with diastolic heart failure,” Borlaug said. “We have literally millions of Americans and people worldwide suffering every day with severe symptoms of breathlessness and fatigue, and we don’t have anything to give them.”

The new treatment could save many from experiencing the extensive medical procedures currently associated with heart failure. 

Patrick Sullivan was 38 years old and working as an executive for a computer business when he was diagnosed with heart failure in 1993. Though he was in denial and maintained his high-stress lifestyle, a change in health led to a change in heart: he realized that he may leave his wife a widow and his young son fatherless.

For years, he grappled with the reality of living with heart failure. According to one study, approximately 50 percent of people die within five years of their diagnosis. However, Sullivan survived with the help of three pacemakers, eight stents, more than 20 cardioversions, 14 different types of medication taken daily and, eventually, a heart transplant.

When his health recovered, Sullivan and a friend started a foundation that aims to help provide financial assistance for families affected by heart failure and heart transplants. 

Though there are no cures, experimental treatments like Dudley’s may help provide a second chance for Sullivan and others who experience heart failure. 

“Research is so important,” Sullivan said. “[Treatments] would help people not just experience life, but actually live it.”