Dr. Steven Poelzing is determined to find better ways to treat and prevent cardiac malfunction, especially sudden cardiac. He and his team at the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics and the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute research how salts affect heart performance — in healthy and genetically-mutated hearts.
At TEDxVirginiaTech, he presents a radical question: What if doctors could manipulate heart performance using intravenous saltwater solutions developed specifically for different cardiac conditions? What if a saltwater solution could get a person’s heart beating normally after a heart attack?
Poelzing thinks it’s possible. He and his team started their research into saltwater solutions after they noticed that landmark studies in heart function were coming up with different answers to the same question: Does a heart with less gap junctions (small tubes that allow heart cells to communicate) contract slower than a heart with the normal number of gap junctions? Experiments with engineered mice missing half of their heart gap junctions provided results that were puzzling: “Some researchers reported that electrical contractions slowed as expected,” Poelzing says, “while other researchers found that the mutant hearts behaved normally.”
The reason for the discrepancy, Poelzing says, “was in the solution.” The saltwater solution, that is. “[The heart relies on salts to function and] scientists, like clinicians, use saltwater recipes that are handed down from previous generations,” he says. So, Poelzing and his team took a guess: Maybe a heart with less gap junctions was more vulnerable to changes in chemistry than a heart with all of its junctions; maybe it was the salt that really affected the cardiac electricity. Poelzing’s research team became interested in how the heart’s structure — the number of gap junctions — worked in tune with body chemistry — the number of salt ions in the bloodstream.
“We tested the hypothesis that saltwater solutions can modify the electrical response to loss of gap junctions,” Poelzing says. His team found that different saltwater solutions didn’t seem to affect the electrical function of a healthy heart, but that a heart with less gap junctions than usual was made slower by one of the saltwater solutions. What does this mean for heart health and heart research? Two things, Poelzing says. One, that saltwater has the potential to reveal cardiac disease, and two, that with “the right saltwater solution recipe, you can keep a genetic disease in a nonlethal state.”
Poelzing and his team are now in the process of developing custom saltwater solutions to best treat different cardiac disorders and intervene in cardiac emergencies. “In the last 12 months, we’ve adjusted the saltwater recipes for five very different cardiac diseases. We’ve turned abnormally functioning hearts into normally functioning hearts.”
To learn more about Poelzing’s research, watch the whole talk below: