A former Northerner has found a way to protect heart cells from some negative effects of chemotherapy.

Former Yellowknifer Gopinath Sutendra’s research found a way to protect heart cells from dying due to chemotherapy. Photo courtesy of Gopinath Sutendra

Gopinath Sutendra grew up in Inuvik and Yellowknife and is now a researcher and assistant professor in the cardiology division of the faculty of medicine and dentistry at the University of Alberta.

One of the emerging clinical problems we see in cancer patients, a significant number of them actually develop heart failure during their chemotherapy treatments or a few years after their chemotherapy treatment,” said Sutendra.

The problem is that while a lot of chemotherapy treatments may be effective in killing cancer cells, they also kill normal cells, including those in the heart, he said.

Sutendra was recruited to the university to conduct research in this specific area in December 2015. In 2016 he was awarded the Alberta Innovates-Health Solutions (AIHS) Translational Health Chair in Cardio-Oncology. He received $2.1 million to study the molecular pathways of cancer therapies leading to heart complications.

That research program took more than three years and the findings were published Feb. 6 in the Science Translational Medicine journal.

“What our research program was looking at was ways that we could prevent the chemotherapy from killing heart cells while enhancing its therapeutic potency against tumour cells,” said Sutendra.

They found a protein in the heart called PKM2, which also exists in tumours. But in the heart, it’s tagged with oxygen.

The heart consumes a lot of oxygen, beating continuously, whereas tumours and cancers tend to live in oxygen-poor areas, he explained. 

In tests on mice, treatment with a compound known as TEPP-46 not only prevented cardiac dysfunction but also enhanced the effectiveness of the chemotherapy against tumours, specifically in the lungs.

The next goal of the research program will be to contact the pharmaceutical industry to see “if we can start getting this closer to patients quicker,” Sutendra said.

“Eventually, we would hope that it would be given to patients so that when cancer patients come in for their chemotherapy they can be given another therapy that they know would protect their heart cells from dying due to chemotherapy treatment,” he said.

Sutendra said their findings may be applicable not just to heart failure caused by chemotherapy, but in general.

“We’ll look at it in other conditions as well and we’ll also look at other experimental models to make sure this is something that may be therapeutically beneficial in a variety of tumours as well,” he said. “We were looking at lung tumours in our study but we may expand that now to other tumours as well to see if it can increase the potency of chemotherapy against those as well.”

Sutendra called the research project a “team effort.”

“We had a good group of grad students, residents, other investigators and the University of Alberta, who really contributed to this work,” he said.

Meaghan Richens

Meaghan Richens is from Ottawa, Ont., and grew up in Perth. She moved to Yellowknife in May 2018 after completing her bachelor’s degree in journalism at Carleton University. She writes about politics,...

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