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Cutting-edge Model of Heart Helps Scientists Study New Therapies

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Two views of a heart model showing electrical activity during ventricular fibrillation, a condition in which the heart’s ability to pump blood becomes fragmented and discoordinated. Image: Courtesy of Dr. Alan Garfinkel

A team of UCLA doctors, scientists and engineers has created a detailed computer model that shows how the heart’s electrical signals are affected by congestive heart failure. The “virtual heart” will help medical researchers study new drug therapies that could treat heart failure.

One of the senior authors of the paper was William Klug, PhD, a UCLA mechanical and aerospace engineering professor, who was killed by a gunman in his office on June 1, 2016.

The model “can potentially help many who suffer from arrhythmias in congestive heart failure,” says Alan Garfinkel, PhD, professor of integrative biology and physiology.

Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood. It is a leading cause of death. Patients also die at an accelerated rate from electrical disturbances called arrhythmias, the subject of the UCLA study. The model can simulate tiny, subtle changes in the heart’s cells and tissues, as well as the larger impact on the entire heart. The changes are then shown in a corresponding electrocardiogram, a tool commonly used to diagnose heart abnormalities.

The model is based on a rabbit’s heart. It can show what happens to the heart cells and tissue when the levels and flow of calcium, potassium and sodium ions — all required for the heart to work — are changed. The model also shows, for the first time, what happens to the organ when various critical chemicals and electrophysiologic components of a healthy working heart are altered by disease.

The researchers say the invention could help doctors zero in on effective new drug therapies for heart failure, because it should make it easier to understand how certain medications work and when and where in the heart they can be most effective. The study also revealed that ventricular fibrillation, a condition in which the heart beat becomes fragmented and erratic, can be caused by a slowdown in cellular processes at the top of the heart during heart failure. In addition, the researchers used their model to plan a new drug strategy against this heart-failure form of fibrillation.

“Electrophysiology of Heart Failure Using a Rabbit Model: From the Failing Myocyte to Ventricular Fibrillation,” PLOS Computational Biology, June 23, 2016


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