University of Calgary

Research shed light on diastolic heart failure

UToday HomeFebruary 20, 2013

February is Heart Month – the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s key opportunity to reach millions of Canadians to alert them to the risks of heart disease and stroke.February is Heart Month – the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s key opportunity to reach millions of Canadians to alert them to the risks of heart disease and stroke. Heart disease and stroke take a life every seven minutes; 90 per cent of Canadians have at least one risk factor.The University of Calgary is part of an Alberta research team making significant advances in recognizing and treating the least understood and toughest-to-diagnose form of heart failure.

Diastolic heart failure occurs when the heart fails to fill with enough blood because the heart muscle has become stiff. About 40 per cent of heart failure patients – roughly 32,000 Albertans – have diastolic heart failure but it can only be confirmed through diagnostic imaging exams, such as echocardiography or magnetic resonance imaging scans.

Its symptoms – including chest pain, fatigue, weakness and swelling – are similar to those caused by the more common type of heart failure, systolic, which occurs when the heart muscle becomes too weak to pump with enough force.

“Diastolic heart failure looks like systolic heart failure when you’re examining someone at the bedside,” says Dr. Jonathan Howlett, director of heart failure at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta, and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Calgary.

“We’re trying to learn more about it so we can identify it earlier, prevent it from happening and treat it when we see it.”

Little previous research has been done on diastolic heart failure because there were no animal models — lab mice with the condition — upon which researchers could test new drugs.

Now, Alberta HEART, a team comprised of 24 scientists and clinicians across the research and health care spectrum, has succeeded in creating an animal model with diastolic heart dysfunction.

As well, the Alberta HEART team has examined hundreds of Albertans with heart failure to develop a comprehensive analysis of risk factors, which could be used to build effective strategies to prevent heart failure before it happens.

All of this promises to lead to personalized, more effective treatment plans for diastolic heart failure patients, with therapies that take into account the very different cause of their heart failure.

Researchers hope this work will pave the way for human drug trials in the near future.

“A lot of heart failure is looked after by primary care physicians who see this day in and day out,” says Dr. Todd Anderson, co-director of Alberta HEART and director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta.

“If they better understand the condition, know what to look for, know when to refer and how to treat it better, they will feel much more comfortable looking after these patients,” Anderson adds.

Partners in the five-year project, now entering its fourth year, include Alberta Health Services, the University of Calgary, University of Alberta, the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta, and the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute, with $5 million in funding from Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions.


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