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Avoid the 'Trojan horse' of stress on your heart (2 photos)

In this edition of Urban Cowboy, Owen Roberts writes about a researcher who urges students and others undergoing excessive stress to take breaks

Heart disease, the complicated, stubborn affliction that plagues our society, is like a Trojan horse – although everything looks calm and cool on the outside, on the inside lurks the potential for misery and death.

That metaphor came to University of Guelph heart researcher Glen Pyle, a biomedical sciences professor in the Ontario Veterinary College, when selecting an image to interpret for this year’s final In The Gallery (ITG) presentation at the university Wednesday.

From among 2,200 works in the Bachinski/Chu Print Study Collection, his choice was an etching entitled Trojan, 1978, from the Canadian artist John Esler (1933-2001).

In the print, a Trojan-like stallion assembled through what looks like planks of textured wood riveted together, rears his head to an unnatural height. The work is predominantly a study in tones, but the black-and-white colour field has a single blast of pink in a long triangle that makes up the tail.

“Art and science have always been connected in the medium of print, a result of creative impulse and technological process,” says art history professor Christina Smylitopoulos, faculty curator of the collection. “It was remarkable how instantly Glen was drawn to Trojan, as he saw the potential for the print to work on a symbolic level.”

Here’s the connection. With support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Pyle’s lab is one of only a handful in the world researching the role of naturally occurring protein called CapZ in heart failure.

He likens CapZ to rivets holding heart tissue together. But he and his lab have found heart tissue does better when CapZ is removed. Removing rivets from any material to enhance stability rather than promote flimsiness is a contrary idea that prompts some reviewers to doubt Pyle when he and his lab look to further their studies.

“People don’t believe us,” he told those gathered for his ITG presentation. “They say, ‘That’s wrong’!”

But it’s not. Pyle made this discovery back in the late 1990s, as part of his quest to find ways to deal with certain kinds of heart failure in dogs and humans.

However, like the citizens of Troy who were slain by Greeks hiding inside the Trojan horse, the gods keep conspiring against them: Despite advances in medicine and in our understanding of the importance of exercise to cardiovascular health, heart failure remains unsolvable, and keeps getting worse. That’s true in Canada, but more in countries where affluence is growing, eating habits are worsening and exercise is waning.

And like the Trojan horse’s stowaway soldiers, heart failure usually arrives without notice, and proves fatal shortly after. About one-third of those diagnosed with it die within a year.

Unfortunately, there’s no obvious way to fix it, because it’s so complicated. Heart failure starts with some kind of stress that might take place over many years, such as a genetic mutation, diabetes, or high blood pressure. The heart itself actually remodels itself and changes to adapt to this stress, at least for a while. But when it remodels itself too much, it become less efficient. And being an internal organ, the change is invisible.

“It’s like the Trojan horse,” says Pyle. “The evil is hidden.”

Eventually – the time and date are always a surprise – failure occurs. When that happens, just like when the proverbial Greek soldiers leapt out of the Trojan horse to open the gates of Troy to the Greek army, it’s too late to do anything about it.

Pyle thinks a key is to get the heart to remodel itself quickly, by uncapping the CapZ “rivets” for a time, then recapping them so it stops.

Meanwhile, Pyle urges people undergoing excessive stress – such as university students immersed right now in exams – to take breaks for stress relief.

“Step away from work or whatever stresses you, and do other things you enjoy,” he says. “Use your creativity as an outlet.”