Kentucky researcher solves 60-year mystery of how the heart functions

  • Samples of donated hearts from patients were used to generate 3D photos
  • Researchers were able to determine the structure of thick filaments in the heart
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A Kentucky researcher has solved a mystery about how the heart works that has been unanswered for 60 years.

Working with the University of Massachusetts, a team used samples from donated hearts from patients to generate 3D images of the heart’s thick cardiac filaments β€” which help the heart contract as it beats β€” at the level of individual molecules.

For reference, scientists said if the heart is a continent, they were working with a few strands of hair.

Kenneth Campbell, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Kentucky, said: ‘People have been trying to figure out the structure of these filaments for 60 years.

‘We (now) know the molecular structure of thick cardiac filaments and we can use that information to design better therapies.’

The research is especially relevant for people in Kentucky, because the state is one of the worst for heart disease

Mr. Campbell added: ‘The heart consists of billions of cells. Cells are made up of structures called sarcomeres, and within sarcomeres are things called thick filaments.

‘Each filament consists of roughly 2,000 molecules, arranged in a very complicated structure that scientists have been trying to understand for decades.’

He said the discovery of the structure means that the heart muscle can be controlled more precisely than doctors and researchers previously thought.

The professor added: ‘We were also excited to see how myosin-binding protein C, a protein linked to genetic heart disease, is in the structure. It gives us a new level of information about how the molecules in the heart are arranged.’

The research is especially relevant for people in Campbell’s home state of Kentucky, as the state has one of the highest rates of heart disease.

β€œWe urgently need better therapies,” he said.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Kentucky, making it one of the top 10 states with the highest death rates from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The team used heart samples from the Gill Cardiovascular Biorepository, which Mr Campbell leads.

Samples are given to the institute for research purposes from patients who have undergone cardiovascular treatment at the University of Kentucky.

β€œWith the help of a surgeon from University of Kentucky HealthCare, we began collecting samples of the myocardium from organ donors and from patients receiving heart transplants,” Mr. Campbell said.

Myocardium is the muscle tissue of the heart.

He added: β€œNow we have built up a huge resource with about 15,000 samples from almost 500 people. We also share these samples with research groups all over the world.’

The research was published in Nature earlier this month.