Out of Rhythm
It happens 300,000 times each year. Suddenly, often without warning signs, an apparently healthy American dies when a storm of electrical activity overwhelms the heart and stops it from beating. Doctors call it ventricular fibrillation, and it is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death.
Another 2.2 million Americans live with a related heart rhythm disorder, or arrhythmia, called atrial fibrillation. AF can be just as dangerous, because it increases the risk of developing blood clots in the heart and having a stroke.
All cardiac arrhythmias are triggered by disturbances in waves of electrical activity that pass through the heart. These electrical impulses stimulate billions of cardiac muscle cells to beat together in a coordinated rhythm. The problem is that scientists still don’t know exactly what causes these electrical disturbances.
The arrival at Michigan of a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from the SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, could change that. Led by José Jalife, M.D., and Mario Delmar, M.D., Ph.D., 35 SUNY scientists and technicians are joining the Cardiovascular Center to create a new Center for Arrhythmia Research.
“Fibrillation is like a tornado in your heart muscle, except instead of wind, it’s made up of electrical waves,” says Jalife, the Cyrus and Jane Farrehi Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine.
Jalife and Delmar are well-known for their basic scientific work on the underlying cause of cardiac arrhythmias, but Jalife says they needed to be part of an institution with a strong clinical program to transfer their research findings from the lab to the clinic. So the opportunity to collaborate with U-M physicians like Hakan Oral, M.D., and Fred Morady, M.D., was a big reason why they decided to become part of the Cardiovascular Center.
“We have one simple goal and that is to cure arrhythmia,” says Oral, the Frederick G.L. Huetwell Research Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine. “Achieving that goal requires a multidisciplinary approach with basic scientists and clinicians focusing on the problem from different perspectives.”
Oral and Morady, the McKay Professor of Cardiovascular Disease, are leaders in the use of radiofrequency ablation to treat complex arrhythmias.
“Every cell in the heart is capable of twitching. The trick is you want them to twitch at the same time in synchrony,” says Delmar, the Frank Norman Wilson Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine.
To study atrial and ventricular fibrillation, Jalife and his colleagues developed technology that measures the precise frequency interval between heartbeats at specific locations within a patient’s heart.
“Our hypothesis is that areas with the fastest frequencies are where the vortices that maintain fibrillation are located,” Jalife says.
“The collaboration will benefit not only our patients, but patients with heart rhythm disturbances everywhere,” says David Pinsky, M.D., a director of the Cardiovascular Center. —SP