Orchestrating changes in heart disease

Centenary’s Molecular Cardiology research group—Professor Chris Semsarian, Dr Richard Bagnall & Tatiana Tsoutsman (Missing: Rhian Shephard) with bioinformatician Dr William Ritchie

A study by Centenary scientists will help researchers find new approaches to diagnosing and treating a devastating genetic heart condition. The group looked at microRNAs, tiny fragments of genetic material that regulate genes.

They may be small, but microRNAs (miRNAs) pack a significant punch. The work that Centenary’s Molecular Cardiology research group—including post-doctoral fellow, Dr Richard Bagnall, Professor Chris Semsarian, Dr Tatiana Tsoutsman and Rhian Shephard in collaboration with bioinformatician Dr William Ritchie—has just published tracked changing patterns of microRNAs in heart cells from the inception of the disease condition until its end stages.

It appeared in the September issue PLoS (Public Library of Science) ONE , and opens the way to new forms of diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), the genetically-based heart condition which affects up to one in 500 young people in Australia.

microRNAs are tiny molecules of genetic material which regulate the production of proteins and control the activities of the cell. This role has only been recognised in the past decade or so. But they have now become a focus of several research groups at the Centenary Institute, including Vascular Biology, Ageing, and Gene and Stem Cell Therapy, as well as Molecular Cardiology.

Sorting out which genes the microRNAs are actually targeting is not easy. Individual microRNAs are capable of being matched to 100s, even 1000s of genes.

That’s the point at which the molecular cardiologists enlisted the aid of Dr Ritchie and the computer resources of the Institute. Ritchie and his team were able to come up with the most likely gene alternatives. Their suggestions were then checked in the laboratory.

Although this was mainly a background study, the group already has sequenced two of the prominent microRNAs which mark the onset of HCM. This may open the way to early diagnosis of HCM which, until now, has been notoriously difficult .

In addition, microRNAs—as compounds whose prime role is to tweak the output of genes—could provide doctors with a means to treat the condition.

The team’s paper can be accessed here.