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

the researchers created new methods to dissect the hearts, and quantify heart contractility and other functions by using a movie camera to capture fly’s cardiac activity.

“We started with Nick Reeves and James Posakony at UCSD, who originally made the mutant KCNQ fly for a different purpose. We then studied these mutants with the new heart function assays that Ocorr was developing in my lab. Subsequently, we worked with Martin Fink and Wayne Giles at UCSD to develop a computer program that would allow the automated quantification of heart beat parameters and arrhythmias from the video images,” Bodmer said. In addition, collaborations with H.S. Vincent Chen at Burnham and Soichiro Yasuda and Joseph Metzger of the University of Michigan enabled measuring the fly’s electrocardiogram (ECG) and heartbeat force and tension, respectively.

“We now have a lot of methods to precisely assess heart function in the fly, which augments its usefulness as a genetic model for studying cardiac function,” said Ocorr, who conducted most of these studies.

The study points to KCNQ as a major factor in heart disease, but Bodmer warns that much more research is needed to use it alone as a drug target. “The fact that heart functions deteriorate in the mutant flies during aging suggests that there are other channels and genes that contribute to cardiac aging,” he said. “We need to better understand the regulatory systems that control the level and activity of known cardiac channels and other unknown factors involved in coordinated heart muscle contraction.”

In fact, the researchers are now looking at identifying other genes that regulate KCNQ channel function and heart physiology, and—thanks to the short lifespan of Drosophila —can look at the effects of aging, which is much harder to do in mammals with a relatively long lifespan.

“There’s an amazing conservation of genes between flies and humans,” Bodmer said. “We can now look at h
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