“Exercise as a drug” treatment for heart failure

9 August 2017        

Category: Research

Researchers in Canada have shown that a protein called CT1 can promote the growth of heart muscle in a way comparable to exercise. The trials, in rats, open up the possibility of a new effective therapy in the future for heart failure sufferers for whom there is currently no cure.

The far right image shows how a cardiotrophin treatment repaired heart muscle after a heart attack in a rat model. The blue areas are scar tissue and the red sections are healthy heart muscle. The far right image shows how a cardiotrophin treatment repaired heart muscle after a heart attack in a rat model. The blue areas are scar tissue and the red sections are healthy heart muscle. Image from Cell Research. 

Over half a million people in the UK have been diagnosed with heart failure, where the heart muscle is weakened and struggles to pump blood around the body effectively. Exercise can make the muscles in your heart grow and make the heart more effective at pumping blood. The catch - people suffering from heart failure often aren’t well enough to be able to exercise. 

In experiments in rats and mice researchers in The Ottawa Hospital, the University of Ottawa, the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, and Carleton University found a potential way around this problem. The protein cardiotrophin 1 (CT-1) recreates many of the effects of exercise on the heart - but without the strain on the heart normally caused by exercise. Dr Lynn Megeney the senior author of the paper explained:  

"When part of the heart dies, the remaining muscles try to adapt by getting bigger, but this happens in a dysfunctional way and it doesn't actually help the heart pump more blood. 

We found that CT-1 causes heart muscles to grow in a more healthy way and it also stimulates blood vessel growth in the heart. This actually increases the heart's ability to pump blood, just like what you would see with exercise and pregnancy."

Dr Megeney and his colleagues looked at the potential effect of CT-1 on animals which had heart failure caused by heart attack and high blood pressure.  In both of these conditions the researchers saw a growth of healthy heart muscle, comparable to that created by exercise, in the treated animals. Commenting on the research Professor Metin Avkiran, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said:

“Over half a million people in the UK are living with heart failure. There is no cure for this debilitating condition, and for patients with severe heart failure the chances of surviving for more than five years are worse than most forms of cancer, so the need to find new treatments is urgent. That’s why the BHF is funding millions of pounds of research into its causes, prevention, diagnosis and treatment.” But he added that much more research is needed to find out if CT-1 “is safe and effective in humans with or at risk of developing heart failure.”

Discussing the promise of future treatments Dr Patrick Burgon, a co author of the research at the University of Ottawa explained:

"An intriguing aspect of this research was how human CT1 was able to promote a healthy growth response in multiple animal models. This suggests the action of CT1 is universally conserved and puts us much closer to therapy."

The paper “Cardiotrophin 1 Stimulates Beneficial Myogenic and Vascular Remodeling of the Heart” was published in Cell Research 8 August 2017 and is available online as an open access paper. 

Read more news from The BHF