Dr Bianca Brundel of the UMCG Department of Clinical Pharmacology has demonstrated the effect of a new medicine for the heart rhythm disorder atrial fibrillation. ‘Our research shows that this new medicine prevents cardiac injury caused by atrial fibrillation. This is the first medicine that prevents such injury and inhibits the progression of the heart rhythm disorder. The medicine is already being tested in experimental studies in humans. If this goes well, the medicine could be on the market in 5 to 10 years’, says Brundel. She published her findings online last week in the leading journal Circulation
Brundel demonstrated the effect of the new medicine in fruit flies first. ‘Fruit fly heart cells resemble human ones to such a degree that they are well-suited to investigating atrial fibrillation’, says Brundel. She developed the method together with the UMCG Department of Cell Biology. ‘We trigger atrial fibrillation in the fruit fly heart and then determine which proteins are involved in cardiac injury by turning certain genes on or off. Once we have found these proteins, we use the fruit fly to test which new medicines prevent such cardiac injury. When doing so, the positive effect of this new medicine stood out.’
Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm disorder, where the electrical stimuli that the heart generates in order to beat are disturbed. In atrial fibrillation, the heart beats irregularly and usually too rapidly. Consequently, many patients feel tired or agitated. Atrial fibrillation can also be dangerous because it increases the risk of brain haemorrhage or of developing heart failure. The patients’ symptoms vary widely: some people hardly notice anything at all, while others experience symptoms such as palpitations as very distressing and restrictive.
In 2010, atrial fibrillation was diagnosed in over 5 million people in Western Europe. Approximately 8% of the elderly will ultimately be affected, but it is also becoming more prevalent in the young. People who are seriously overweight or who have increased blood pressure are particularly at risk of developing the disorder. It also occurs in endurance athletes. ‘The moment the heart develops atrial fibrillation, injury to the heart cells occurs. This injury in turn causes more atrial fibrillation, so you’re stuck with it’, Brundel explains. The disease thus develops progressively and causes more and more damage to heart cells.
Brundel’s research is a good example of the collaboration between the University and the pharmaceutical industry. ‘We are excellent at fundamental scientific research at the University. In my field this means understanding exactly what happens in the heart cell during atrial fibrillation. This helps us to develop new target sites for treatment. We can then test new medicines using our models. After this, the industry takes over and ensures the medicine is tested correctly in patients and is marketed’, says Brundel. ‘We are also good at developing innovative research methods for investigating the effect of medicines on atrial fibrillation. In this study, we have shown that research on fruit flies and cultured mouse heart cells is a good way to demonstrate the effect of these medicines.’ Brundel has been invited to explain her latest findings to the American Heart Rhythm Society in Washington.
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