Six proteins handle cell-to-cell communication that regulates the heartbeat, researchers have found, but until now only one of those proteins had been identified.

The smallest of the proteins directs the largest in fulfilling its duty of coordinating billions of heart cells during each heartbeat. Together, the proteins regulate the rapid flow of electrical communication signals and coordinate heart cells to produce a steady heartbeat, the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute researchers explained.

"The findings advance our understanding of cell-to-cell communication at the root of healthy heart function. When there is less cell communication, which occurs in failing hearts, chances are greater of disturbances in heart rhythm that can result in disability or death," study senior author Dr. Robin Shaw said in a Cedars-Sinai news release.

The discovery improves understanding of the basis of healthy heart function and could lead to new treatments for heart rhythm disorders and heart failure, according to the study authors.

The investigators also found that a class of drugs called mTOR inhibitors -- which are used to suppress the immune system in people who've received organ transplants -- can change the balance of proteins in heart cells and boost the amount of electrical coordination in the heart. This suggests that the drugs could be used to prevent irregular and sometimes deadly heart rhythms.

In the study, scheduled for publication in the journal Cell Reports, the researchers noted that cell-to-cell communication occurs in all organs and that the same proteins that help heart cells communicate also play a role in brain function, bone development and insulin production in the pancreas.

The finding that mTOR inhibitors improve cell-to-cell communication suggests that these drugs might prove useful in treating a number of disorders, the study team pointed out.

More information

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The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about heart rhythm problems.

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