The protein, known as ATF6, occurs naturally in all cells in the human body. Research by Glembotski’s group and others over the years has shown that ATF6 responds to stress brought on by misfolded proteins in a part of the cell called the endoplasmic reticulum. This stress is often caused by an overabundance of reactive oxygen molecules that derail the cell’s normal ability to function—the primary reason for damage to the heart when people suffer from heart disease and heart attacks. In previous studies, Glembotski and his colleagues showed that during heart attacks in mice, ATF6 is called into action, but its function in the heart was not known.
To investigate this mystery, Glembotski and his colleagues turned to a strain of mice that lack the gene that codes for the production of ATF6. In these mice, they found that heart disease caused more extensive damage than mice with normally functioning versions of the gene.
The team went on to show that as mice age, they progressively lose ATF6, and their hearts become more prone to damage during a heart attack. In an effort to arrest this age-related effect, Glembotski and his team developed a drug based on gene therapy that could boost ATF6 production in heart cells. It worked, and the older mice who received the drug showed less damage following a heart attack.
“These cellular mechanics should work very much the same way in humans,” Glembotski said. Taken together, the results suggest that ATF6 plays a critical role in jumpstarting a process that reduces ischemia/reperfusion damage (I/R). I/R occurs when blood rushes back into tissue after a heart attack. The researchers reported their findings in the March 3 edition of the journal Circulation Research.
“It seems to be an adaptive response of the heart that is lost with age,” Glembotski said. “We think that, like the mice, human heart cells usually make some ATF6, but if they could make more—like in the young heart—the heart would be more resistant to heart disease.”
To that end, he and his lab—which has been funded continuously by the National Institutes of Health since 1983—are looking at various ways to boost ATF6 production in the heart. One simple way to do so may be increased exercising.
“Our preliminary studies show that exercise might naturally boost endogenous ATF6 and help prevent damage from I/R,” Glembotski said.
An additional way of increasing ATF6 in the heart might involve using gene therapy to boost naturally occurring ATF6. This could be especially effective for older people whose natural protection against cellular stress has waned.
“As we age, the adaptive stress response in the heart decreases,” Glembotski said. “If we can deliver new versions of these genes to the heart, we could bring back some of that protection that you naturally have when you are young.”