Researchers pinpoint how cells get damaged during cardiac surgeries

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New findings on how cardiac muscle cells are damaged during surgery could point to emerging methods that will allow hearts to recover more quickly.

The research, completed by investigators at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, was published in JCI Insight, the journal of the American Society for Clinical Investigation.

Most patients recover in a reasonable amount of time after heart surgery, but some patients suffer long-term consequences and even heart failure from the physical stress of the surgery. Current methods to protect cardiac muscle from damage include cooling and infusing it with potassium to halt its contractions.

To find out why some patients are slow to recover, researchers studied cardiomyocytes, which are commonly damaged during the process of stopping and starting the heart during surgeries that use cardiopulmonary bypass machines. Their work shows that cardiac muscle cells react to injury by destroying and creating new mitochondria.

"By accelerating beneficial aspects of this process, doctors one day may be able to speed up healing from open-heart surgery," said Roberta Gottlieb, MD, the lead author on the study and director of Molecular Cardiobiology and a professor of medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, in a statement.

For decades, researchers have tried to create medication to treat ischemia and reperfusion injury, but they have yet to be successful.

"There have been wonderful results in animal tests, but not in people," Gottlieb said. "We need to have a better understanding of the beneficial and deleterious processes that characterize the human heart's response to ischemia and reperfusion."

Gottlieb and her team have already begun further research on the topic by gathering data on mitochondria from heart transplant patients over a series of months while examining its reaction to a pharmacological agent.