Fruit fly research may lead to better understanding of human heart disease

December 01, 2008

Researchers at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research (Burnham) have shown in both fruit flies and humans that genes involved in embryonic heart development are also integral to adult heart function. The study, led by Rolf Bodmer, Ph.D., was published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Bodmer's lab has discovered that in the fruit fly Drosophila, interactions between cardiac nmr genes (TBX20 in humans) and other transcription factors, are involved in regulating cardiac performance, rhythm and heart muscle structure. TBX20, along with other congenital heart disease genes, has been previously shown to be critical to the development of the embryonic heart first in flies and subsequently in mouse models. However, this study is the first indication that nmr/TBX20 also plays a role in adult heart function. These genes are highly conserved from flies to humans and Bodmer's research showed that some human individuals with structural congenital heart abnormalities, as well as problems with heart function, including arrhythmias and heart failure, also exhibited TBX20 mutations.

"These studies demonstrate that Drosophila has potential as a model system for exploring the genetics underlying human heart disease and for identifying new candidate genes that potentially cause heart disease," said Dr. Bodmer.

To make the connection between human and Drosophila heart malfunction, human subjects with structural congenital heart disease, as well as heart muscle dysfunction were examined. In 96 human subjects with clinical evidence of dilated cardiomyopathy (this causes a weakened heart that cannot pump blood efficiently), DNA analysis identified three different variants of the gene TBX20, suggesting TBX20 may be involved in the development of cardiomyopathy. In addition, TBX20 variants were identified in four children with atrial septal defects.
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This research was funded by grants from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

About Burnham Institute for Medical Research

Burnham Institute for Medical Research is dedicated to revealing the fundamental molecular causes of disease and devising the innovative therapies of tomorrow. Burnham, with operations in California and Florida, is one of the fastest growing research institutes in the country. The Institute ranks among the top four institutions nationally for NIH grant funding and among the top 25 organizations worldwide for its research impact. Burnham utilizes a unique, collaborative approach to medical research and has established major research programs in cancer, neurodegeneration, diabetes, infectious and inflammatory and childhood diseases. The Institute is known for its world-class capabilities in stem cell research and drug discovery technologies. Burnham is a nonprofit, public benefit corporation. For more information, please visit www.burnham.org.

Sanford-Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute

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