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Learning a Lesson From Wine's Effect on the Heart

Scientists have developed a compound that replicates wine's beneficial effects of preventing lasting damage during a heart attack

Posted: September 23, 2008

Enzymes that help the body process alcoholic beverages such as wine may also aid in limiting the deadly damage inflicted by heart attacks, according to researchers at Stanford University. The scientists are studying the effects of a new compound that may activate these enzymes, which break down alcohol and clear harmful toxins that develop in heart cells, preventing damage to the organ.

The research, published in the September issue of Science, helps shed new light on the benefits of wine consumption and heart health, which have been proven in multiple studies. The Stanford team discovered that one of the factors behind alcohol's effect on the heart is that it activates an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2). The enzyme, which helps process alcohol, also eliminates toxic byproducts created by the breakdown of fats in cells during a heart attack. Eliminating the byproducts prevents lasting damage to the heart cells.

Hoping to trigger ALDH2's effects without alcohol, the Stanford team identified a compound, aldA-1, that activates the enzyme. They injected doses of aldA-1 into lab rats, then temporarily stopped blood flow to the hearts. They found that the compound helped enhance the effects of the enzymes and reduced the damage caused by heart attacks by 60 percent.

The Stanford team hopes that their work on aldA-1 can lead to new treatments for heart attack patients and help patients who have a genetic mutation that prevents alcohol from activating the enzyme. If these enzymes do not metabolize properly, alcohol can lead to toxic effects. The compound may also be beneficial for patients who cannot add moderate amounts of wine to their diet.

"Aldehydes accumulate in humans, not just from drinking wine or alcohol," said Che-Hong Chen, a senior scientist at Stanford who helped develop the compound. "In our bodies, many other aldehydes form that are usually very toxic—and come from the environment or our own body—some of these can also cause Parkinson's or Alzheimer's [disease]. With this compound, one day we may even be able to modify it and make it effective in removing harmful aldehydes that are related to other diseases."

The Stanford researchers are continuing to study the compound's effects on animals. Additional safety tests will be needed before the FDA can consider approving it as a drug. Once the compounds are tested for toxicity, clinical trials can begin with humans. One possible use for aldA-1: A large percentage of the Asian population has a genetic mutation that prevents them from activating ALDH2, making them more vulnerable to damage during cardiac arrest. A recent Chinese health survey found that Asian and Indian populations are at higher risk of heart disease, because of changes in diets and higher levels of blood pressure. "We expect that the compound should be effective for both the normal individuals and the mutated Asian [ALDH2] gene carriers," said Chen. "We are interested in conducting future experiments or human clinical trials in both the general population and the Asian population."

In theory, according to Chen, aldA-1 can help ALDH2 metabolize alcohol faster and detoxify the body, preventing alcohol poisoning, hangovers and other alcohol-related illness, but that is not their main goal. Heart disease is still the world's number one killer, and the World Heart Federation has predicted that one-third of the world's population may suffer from high blood pressure by 2025.

"This compound [aldA-1] might play a big part in protecting the heart against further damage in the future," said Chen. "We found a nice correlation of enzyme activity and protection of the heart [using this compound], so now we want to prove it."

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