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Research Focus: A Possible Path to Restoring Failing Hearts

Written by Pulse News Contributor Marcie McCleary

Physician-scientist Robin Shaw, MD, PhD, is bringing his more-than 15 years of research on failing hearts to University of Utah Health as the new director of the Nora Eccles Harrison Cardiovascular Research and Training Institute (CVRTI). For 50 years, the CVRTI has conducted groundbreaking cardiovascular science and trained generations of scientists and physician-scientists.

“The research my team and I conducted at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center dovetails very well with what several successful research teams at U of U Health are doing,” explained Shaw. “While we’ve been looking at the molecular details of what makes heart muscle cells work and how hearts fail, U of U Health research teams are already working out how failing hearts can recover.”

More than 6.5 million Americans suffer from heart failure every year. The Shaw Lab has discovered an important protein that is needed to allow the heart to pump effectively, and the reduction of this protein leads to heart failure. By the time symptoms develop, the critical window for corrective therapy has typically closed.

Thanks to years of research, Shaw and his team discovered the first-ever biomarker allowing for early detection before clinical symptoms develop. “Each tiny cell in our heart is like its own city. The protein we discovered organizes the city’s highways and roads. When there is not enough protein in the cell, overall function is diminished, just like a city that loses its transportation network.”

Fortunately, the key organizing protein can be found in the bloodstream. Now a simple blood test can reveal if a patient’s heart is making enough of the vital protein. If it’s not, corrective therapies can be prescribed to slow or even stop the progression of the disease. Prior to the discovery of this important biomarker, doctors basically had to wait until patients exhibited symptoms to make a diagnosis and then schedule a variety of diagnostic tests. There was no method to gauge the health of the heart muscle before symptoms developed – or any way to determine the severity of the muscle weakness once symptoms did occur.

CVRTI researchers at U of U Health have already shown that the failing heart muscle can potentially be recovered. Going forward, CVRTI investigators will explore if returning this organizing protein to failing hearts can restore heart function.

Shaw is replacing retiring CVRTI Director Kenneth Spitzer, PhD, who had served in that role for two decades.

“Spitzer has been exceptional. He hired the majority of the current investigators and doubled its annual funding. I am honored to succeed him, and will do well if I can continue his momentum,” Shaw said. “I am excited to begin collaborating with the top-notch scientists already here at the CVRTI.”

The Nora Eccles Harrison Cardiovascular Research and Training Institute was the brainchild of Maxwell Wintrobe, MD, who, in the 1960’s, initiated and developed the concept of a CVRTI at the University of Utah. In 1969, the Board of Regents formally established the CVRTI. A number of distinguished physician-researchers served as directors of the Institute over the years. In 2003, thanks to the generous support of Nora Eccles Harrison, Richard A. Harrison, and the Nora Eccles Treadwell Foundation, the CVRTI was expanded to its current 20,000 square feet and named for its benefactor.