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Fruit Flies May Pave Way to New Treatments for Age-related Heart Disease

The tiny Drosophila fruit fly may pave the way to new methods for studying and finding treatments for heart disease//, the leading cause of death in industrialized countries, according to a collaborative study.

The study reports that mutations in a molecular channel found in heart muscle cell membranes caused arrhythmias similar to those that are found in humans, suggesting that understanding how this channel’s activity is controlled in the cell could lead to new heart disease treatments. Led by Burnham’s Professor Rolf Bodmer, Ph.D., and Staff Scientist Karen Ocorr, Ph.D., these new results, to be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, will be made available by priority publication at the journal’s website during the week of February 26, 2007.

“This study shows that the Drosophila heart can be a model for the human heart,” said Burnham researcher Bodmer. “Fly hearts have many ion channels that also are present in human hearts, making it suitable to extend mechanistic insight found in the fly hearts to human heart function.”

The researchers focused on a membrane channel in the tiny Drosophila heart called KCNQ. This membrane channel, found in flies and humans, regulates the heart’s ability to return to a relaxed state after beating. This ability is crucial to healthy cardiac functions, and the inability to return to a relaxed state results in arrhythmias, which can lead to more serious heart disease and sudden death. In both flies and humans, cardiac arrhythmia and dysfunctions become more common with age.

The team found that mutations in the fly’s single KCNQ gene led to severe arrhythmias that would be immediately fatal to a human, but not in this insect that does not rely on the heart for oxygen supply. Hearts in young flies with the KCNQ mutation exhibited prolonged heart contractions and irregular beats seen usually in older flies (and older people). To enable their study of the fly heart,
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