Heart Disease

Heart disease is the term used to describe a range of conditions affecting the heart.

Usually when we think of heart disease, we are referring to narrowing or blocked vessels, which is also called cardiovascular disease. There are many other types of heart disorders; for example, there may be problems with heart rhythms (arrhythmias), or heart disease may be due to birth defects (congenital heart disease). Collectively, heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S. and is responsible for up to 40% of all deaths. This is more than the number of deaths from all cancers combined.

Each of these diseases damages heart tissue and disrupts its ability to pump blood. Just as there are many different causes of heart disease, so too are there different approaches to their prevention and treatment. Torrey Pines Institute researchers are working on several aspects of heartHeart Disease disease. In one project, the Institute's scientists are finding ways to help the heart pump by improving energy uptake. Small lipids called free fatty acids (FFA) are the major source of energy for the heart muscle cells (or cardiomyocytes), and the cells must have an adequate and constant supply. Our scientists are trying to understand how the FFA move from the blood into the cardiomyocytes, where they can be used for the energy needed to drive heart muscle. Unfortunately, too much FFA may also harm the heart, so our scientists are developing a blood test that can alert us to possible heart damage.

Researchers at Torrey Pines are finding ways to transplant stem cells that will help repair damaged tissue, by providing growth factors and other factors that will improve survival of the stem cells. Adult stem cells are very rare cells that can develop into different cell types, including cardiomyocytes. Our researchers are working to understand how to improve the survival of stem cells, and increasing their ability to move through the body to the damaged heart.

Principal Investigators are working on the following challenges in the area of Heart Disease:

  • Investigating how to regulate the movement of FFA into heart cells.
  • Developing methods that can help diagnose heart disease.
  • Understanding how FFA can damage the heart, and devising ways to reduce their levels in blood.
  • Determining how stem cells contribute to repairing heart damage by dampening inflammatory responses.
  • Discovering factors that improve the survival of transplanted stem cells, so they may help repair damaged heart tissue.

Dr. Alan Kleinfeld uses novel fluorescent probes to investigate how heart muscle cells (cardiomyocytes) take up free fatty acids (FFA), which they use as an energy source. His group is studying how to regulate this process and potentially boost cardiomyocyte function. His group is also developing a blood test that detects rises in FFA blood levels, as a rapid diagnostic test to indicate heart damage.

Dr. Ingrid Schraufstatter studies how mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) may be used as therapy to repair irreversible heart damage. Her group is investigating ways to stimulate MSC so that when they are transplanted, they more efficiently home to sites of tissue damage and release greater quantities of factors that aid in heart tissue regeneration.