Cardiovascular scientists to explore viral infection that can lead to sudden death VTx

“Right now, we don’t understand why certain viruses infect the heart or what they do at the molecular level that leads to arrhythmias,” Smyth said. “This work will investigate and shed new light on how viral infection of heart muscle actually leads to sudden cardiac arrest.”

Smyth’s laboratory at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute examines how heart cells communicate with each other to keep the heart beating.

Gap junctions are one of the most important mechanisms of communication between heart cells. They are responsible for electrically connecting cardiac muscle cells, which in turn produce a healthy, beating heart.

But when a virus targets cells in our body, tampering with gap junctions, it interferes with the heart’s electrical system, creating irregular heartbeats and sometimes triggering sudden cardiac death.

In addition to providing electrical signals in the heart, gap junctions allow cells to communicate. That includes alerting each other, and the immune system, to viral infection.

Smyth’s team will investigate how viruses evolve to target this biology in order to evade the immune response.

According to Smyth, certain viruses typically target the respiratory system. Through targeting gap junctions and replicating cells lining the lung, they cause only minor irritation in the lungs that results in a cough. However, when they enter and infect the heart, the same process of stopping gap junction function can turn fatal.

The study includes work being conducted in the institute’s state-of-the-art Biosafety Level 3 facility, which is used to study infectious agents or toxins that may be transmitted through the air.

In order to understand at a molecular level how viruses wreak havoc on the cardiac landscape, Smyth has teamed up with Steven Poelzing, Samy Lamouille, and Sharon Swanger of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Team members are drawing on their specialties in electrophysiology, cancer biology, and neuroscience to help inform preventive and therapeutic treatment.

“Can we intervene?” Can we prevent progression to this disease state? But also, can we diagnose quickly individuals who have these particular viruses infecting their hearts and can we treat them and save their lives?” Smyth said.

Smyth, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science, is recruiting team members, including a research associate and a postdoctoral associate, to join his research team at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button
%d bloggers like this: