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Frankensteining the human heart at Ohio State

An Ohio State researcher, self-proclaimed “Dr. Frankenstein,” has a unique method of studying the human heart — he revives them in his lab.

Vadim Fedorov, an associate professor of physiology and cell biology at Ohio State, is studying the human heart in unprecedented ways in an attempt to better understand atrial fibrillation, a fast, irregular heart rate in humans.

Fedorov said 5 million people in the United States suffer from atrial fibrillation, and in his lab they are trying to better understand how to target this condition and why it occurs in the first place.

Following a heart transplant or the death of an organ donor whose organs are not viable for transplant, Fedorov’s lab might become the recipient of the unused heart.

“We can simulate [a human heart rate],” Fedorov said. “The heart will beat again.”

Raul Weiss, a cardiac electrophysiologist at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, said atrial fibrillation is the most common heart condition he treats. The condition, which has an unknown cause, comes with several symptoms such as movement limitations and shortness of breath. However, the biggest concern regarding the condition is the increased risk of stroke, Weiss said.

Weiss explained that the longer atrial fibrillation goes untreated, the weaker the heart muscle becomes. And even though there are treatments for atrial fibrillation, there is no cure, and some forms of the condition are persistent.

Fedorov said his research is aimed at a permanent solution to this condition, rather than a temporary treatment.

Once Fedorov’s lab receives a heart, he and his team get to work, no matter the time of day. Fedorov said that there is a short window in which the atria, the upper part of the heart, is viable for resuscitation.

Fedorov said there is a complex series of steps taken to complete resuscitation, which include temperature regulation and pH balance to mimic the conditions of the human body. Once the conditions have been met, Fedorov revives the heart and monitors it using various systems.

Fedorov said he is able to observe how the different atria in the heart are performing by using fluorescent dyes, which he compared to the chemicals that give jellyfish their glow. When the heart is illuminated, Fedorov and his team work in total darkness to observe the pathways of the heart while a camera captures thousands of images.

Vadim Fedorov, an associate professor of physiology and cell biology at Ohio State, studies atrial fibrillation in human hearts to establish a more targeted treatment. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

The aim of Fedorov’s research is to more precisely locate where atrial fibrillation might occur so that doctors can plan better treatment and have a more accurate understanding of the underlying cause, Weiss said.

Clinics are currently using his research to find issues within their patients’ hearts, Fedorov said. He said the impact will likely increase as more clinical trials are done using his research.  

Fedorov said he often meets with cardiac electrophysiologists who see patients, and the care and research behind atrial fibrillation is collaborative.

Weiss said that despite atrial fibrillation being a common condition, there is not much research on the topic.

“We still don’t know the mechanism behind why atrial fibrillations happen,” Weiss said. “[Fedorov is] doing really innovative and really very good research.”

Fedorov said his motivation behind studying atrial fibrillation is his family.

“My grandma and my father both died from sudden cardiac deaths,” Fedorov said. “That is one of the reasons why I decided to study human hearts.”

Fedorov said this research is one of a kind. Many hospitals have the ability to get a human heart, but none is able to view it the way he is able to in his lab, Fedorov said.

“Human atria imaging can be done currently only in this [lab] across the world,” Fedorov said.

Weiss said with Fedorov’s research, doctors might be able to cure atrial fibrillation, and someday there will be more than just a “good” treatment, but one that is “100 percent” effective.

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