How Nobel Prize winners helped shape our understanding of calcium in the heart

7 October 2015        

The 2015 Nobel Prizes are announced this week. Every day Christie Norris from our Research Communications team will look at how the work of previous Nobel Prize winners has influenced our research. Today she looks at the importance of calcium in the heart.

For blood to be pumped around the body, the heart must rhythmically contract and relax. This cycle involves the controlled movement of calcium ions across heart cells. When something goes wrong with calcium transport in the heart, irregular heartbeats can occur which can be life-threatening. The work of 2003 Nobel Prize winners led to our research exploring how heart cells change in some heart conditions.

A heart attack occurs when a blood vessel which carries blood to the heart is temporary restricted or blocked completely. The longer blood flow is restricted, the larger the area of heart muscle which dies. As a result of cell death, the heart must work harder to meet the body’s demands. Over time, this can lead to heart failure, a debilitating condition where the heart is too weak to pump sufficient blood around the body.

An arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm where the heart is beating too fast (tachycardia), too slow (bradycardia) or irregularly. 

Channels in our cells

In 2003, Roderick MacKinnon shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Peter Agre for “discoveries concerning channels in cell membranes”. Ion channels are pores in cells which open and close to let charged particles in and out. MacKinnon and Agre’s findings have helped shape our understanding of how the movement of charged particles, including calcium, through ion channels helps the heart contract and relax. 

The workload of the heart

Thanks to the work of MacKinnon and Agre, understanding of some common heart diseases has dramatically improved. If the heart’s workload increases, heart muscle can become enlarged. This can lead to arrhythmias, or following excessive strain, heart failure. BHF Professor David Eisner at the University of Manchester is exploring how calcium signalling plays a role in the development of these conditions.

Calcium and sudden cardiac death 

BHF Professor Alan Williams at the Wales Heart Research Institute is an expert in the movement of calcium.  His research focuses on a structure which stores calcium in the cell, the sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR), specifically a channel in the SR membrane called the ryanodine receptor. Professor Williams is working with other experts to gain a deeper understanding of how changes in this channel can lead to arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death.

Read Ian’s story in our Heart Matters magazine

The 2003 Nobel Prize winners helped develop our understanding of conditions such as arrhythmias or heart failure. Our researchers hope to continue to develop new therapies and prevent catastrophic events such as sudden cardiac death.

Help us to continue to fund our research into the role of calcium in cardiovascular disease.