Infant hearts contain body’s largest protein

Titin is a giant, spring-like protein that helps give all muscles their elastic recoil. It also gives the heart its ability to retain its shape after each beat.

Veterinary research conducted at Washington State University has revealed that an unusually large form of titin in nearly born and newborn children makes their growing hearts more elastic than those of adults.

Sunshine Lahmers, a veterinary cardiology resident, and her WSU research colleagues made the discovery, which was published in the March 2004 issue of Circulation Research. Lahmers’ work is a collaboration between veterinarians and physicians to understand species differences and similarities in heart development and disease.

Using the enhanced capabilities of the Gene-Sifter data analysis system with customization from its developers at Seattle-based VizX Labs, the group was able to make great strides studying heart development in a short period of time. The work shows promise for a greater understanding of heart disease and heart muscle maturation.

Software yields quick results
Titin is the third most abundant muscle protein in the body, and there is nearly a pound of it in the heart. There are multiple forms of titin, each formed by different sections of the titin gene. The gene provides codes for the production of proteins that link together, much like the rail cars of a train. The group’s work shows that, in the first few months after birth, a large “fetal cardiac titin” is replaced by smaller and stiffer forms of titin.

According to Lahmers, the changes are necessary to accommodate the dramatic changes in a newborn’s body that occur during the transition from living in the womb to breathing air.

Lahmers and her colleagues performed complex laboratory experiments that generated massive amounts of data. The customized software application allowed a rapid and accurate interpretation of that data. What would have taken months in the past was reduced to hours.

The work evaluated a wide range of species, giving researchers a fuller picture of how titin behaves in the heart of young animals and children. The research determined the underlying gene expression patterns and the statistical and biological significance of the data.

Unique research aids others
“The software and the technical expertise afforded us helped the routine number crunching go very quickly, giving me more time to focus on the biology behind those numbers.” Lahmers said.

“Typically, researchers want to know how much a gene is expressed compared to all other genes,” she said. “But I was specifically interested in how often one form of the titin gene was expressed, compared to the most common form.”

“When we identify a unique type of research, we can add features and adjustments to the software to make that research easier,” said Christian Wade, VizX Labs staff scientist. “Perhaps more importantly, other researchers can now access these alterations, aiding everyone’s work, since it’s all Web-based.”

“Dr. Lahmer’s research is interesting, because of the size and unique nature of the titin molecule,” said Eric Olson VizX Labs’ director of science. “The work is innovative, and it is important because of the clinical potential to save lives. It is gratifying that our product has contributed such solid science in this case and now in many others.”

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