Computer modeling fibrillation in the canine heart

04/06/04

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The heart of mankind's best friend, the dog, holds secrets that could improve the health of humans, according to researchers who hope to produce the first computer model of catastrophic rhythm disturbances in the heart, known as ventricular fibrillation. The condition can result in sudden cardiac failure.

Cornell University, Gene Network Sciences Inc. (GNS) and the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) have been selected by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to receive a $2 million, four-year bioengineering research grant. The award will be used to develop a 3-D computer model of the canine heart.

"We are using a canine heart instead of a human heart because normal human data is hard to get," explains Wouter-Jan Rappel, associate research scientist at UCSD. "The canine heart is similar to the human heart because both are large and have comparable signaling channels."

The team will work on different aspects of the project, according to members' research specialties. Robert Gilmour, professor of physiology at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine, makes precise measurements of the heart's electrical currents. Jeffrey Fox, director of physiology at GNS, will use Gilmour's data to build computer models of different types of heart cells and, ultimately, an accurate 3-D computer model of the canine ventricle. Rappel works in conjunction with Fox on the computer calculations and refines computational techniques. Ultimately the model will simulate ventricular fibrillation.

"We are not sure yet what causes ventricular fibrillation," said Rappel. "Right now the only way to help people who have an attack is to jump-start the heart with a big electrical shock. That can damage the heart. We want to find out how to stop ventricular fibrillation before it starts."

According to Gilmour, healthy and unhealthy hearts alike have the ability to fibrillate. It is difficult to understand what causes fibrillation because heart cells perform different functions depending on where they lie on the heart. Gilmour's goal is to make a canine ventricle model that is the most realistic replica yet.

Gilmour, Fox and Rappel have successfully collaborated on past projects. Fox's employer, GNS, is a privately owned systems biology research center headquartered in Ithaca. Founded in August 2000, GNS hired Fox, who previously worked in Gilmour's lab, as one of its first employees.

"Scientifically we are a good group because we all know each other and get along so we have fun working together," said Gilmour. "I have a good idea of what the problems are, and they have a good idea of how to solve them."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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