Hello! Heather here, science writer at Sanford-Burnham and frequent contributor to Beaker. We’re going to do something a little different today. I’m still going to discuss some of the cool research going on here at Sanford-Burnham, but since it affects me personally, this time it’ll be in the context of my own story…
Early one morning eleven years ago, I was visiting some friends while enjoying a break from college, when my dad called to tell me that my mom had died. It was sudden and completely unexpected. She was only 46 years old, healthy and seemingly full of life. My mom just went to work one evening (alone on the late shift) and never came home. As my dad tried to explain to me at the time, she just collapsed and that was it – nobody else was there to know what really happened. It was devastating to me and my family and our lives were forever changed. Not only was she gone, but we never had much of an explanation as to why. What caused her death and could it have been prevented? This was one of the hardest parts for me as both a daughter and as a young scientist. I read the medical examiner’s report myself. It wasn’t a heart attack and it wasn’t a stroke. The cause of death was simply listed as ‘heart failure’.
That still frustrates me. As I’ve pointed out to countless people in the years since, with all we know about the human body, it’s surprising that cause of death can still be a mystery. ‘Heart failure’ just seems like a catch-all phrase – an easy thing to say when there’s no other explanation. After all, isn’t that what kills us all in the end?
I now work at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, where heart disease is a major focus of research at the new facility in Lake Nona, Florida. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Daniel Kelly, heart disease researcher and scientific director in Lake Nona, where I discovered that part of his life’s work is to ease my frustration.
He once said something that echoes exactly what I’ve been thinking all these years: “There are different kinds of cancer, and we are very sophisticated in describing them. But in heart failure, we lack the sophistication to distinguish between different disease types and causes. We just call it heart failure.”
Dr. Kelly explained to me that there isn’t just one heart disease – there are many different ‘flavors’ that can result from a heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes or some other as-yet unidentified cause. Now he and other researchers are finding that the molecular mechanisms leading to each type of heart disease are different. For example, the heart has an incredible capacity to switch back and forth between burning sugar and burning fats to generate energy, and that balance gets shifted differently depending on the type of heart disease. Whereas the diabetic heart sucks up fat, the hypertensive heart prefers sugars. They believe that clearly defining each distinct pathway to heart disease and heart failure will help them develop new therapies tailored to the specific cause. In fact, Dr. Kelly is now building a whole new program at Sanford-Burnham’s Lake Nona campus to do just that.
There is comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who thinks we need more answers as to what we mean by ‘heart failure’. Now I am getting older and have a daughter of my own, and so I begin to think of my own mortality. I hope that as we gain more information on how to live our lives and how to treat our sick, I will have many more years with her than I had with my own mother.
Thanks for listening.
In loving memory of Cynthia Jean Maisey
July 14, 1953 – October 19, 1999