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Band-Aids and guardian angels

Research findings show promise for repairing and protecting the heart

Ask Joseph Metzger, Ph.D., what he and his colleagues do for a living and he’s likely to reply, “We’re in the business of fixing hearts.”

Joseph Metzger, Ph.D., brought his innovative heart therapy research to his home state in 2008. (Photo: Jerry Vincent)

If his research findings are any indication, business should soon be thriving. “Fixing hearts is what I think about all day, every day, 365 days a year,” says Metzger, chair of the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology. “My colleagues and I take a basic science approach to the problem—how we might apply modern technologies to improve the functionality of the diseased heart.”

A native of Minnesota, Metzger previously worked at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, where he directed its Center for Integrative Genomics. Now back in Minnesota, he hopes to expand and perfect some of his most promising research.

Two research projects in particular are captivating the interests of clinicians, scientists, and patients alike.

In the past few years, Metgzer has designed and tested what he calls a “molecular Band-Aid.” It’s a chemical that seeks out tiny “microcuts” in the heart muscle.When injected into the bloodstream, the molecular Band-Aid finds these microcuts and then protects those areas from bacteria and other harmful substances so that the muscle can function normally.

Metzger has studied the potential of this therapy in large animals and hopes to begin clinical trials in humans soon.

He believes the molecular Band-Aid could be used to help repair weakened heart muscle in people who have inherited diseases such as muscular dystrophy and in the elderly.

Metzger and his team also are investigating a new therapeutic technique using what he calls a “guardian angel” protein that would be delivered to damaged heart muscle via genetic engineering.

“Like a guardian angel, the protein is always present but not active when the heart muscle is healthy and working well on its own,” explains Metzger. “But when the heart muscle’s performance is rapidly declining, the guardian angel protein activates and begins to improve functionality.”

The degree to which it improves heart muscle function is proportional to the degree of dysfunction: the greater the severity of a person’s disease, the more the guardian angel protein would be activated. Because the therapy only works when needed, Metzger expects that it would cause few, if any, side effects. Compared with the molecular Band-Aid, the guardian angel technology is a longer-term project because Metzger and his team must design the substances that can deliver the new genetic “blueprints” to damaged heart muscle. But Metzger is optimistic.

“In five years, we’ve taken the guardian angel protein from test-tube experiments to correcting heart disease in small animals,” he says. “Major advances are occurring every month in the biomedical field, and we believe that this therapy could have profound effects in restoring the function of the heart.”

Metzger, who holds the Maurice Visscher Land-Grant Chair in Physiology, says he’s very happy to be home and to bring his research to Minnesota.

“There is renewed vigor of leadership here to be setting the pace in cardiovascular research and medicine,” he says. “The University has developed a vision and is committed to building resources and programs to make it a top-notch institution in the field. It’s exciting to be part of that effort.”

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