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  Matters of the Heart

With Valentine's Day fast approaching, it seemed a fitting time to celebrate that icon of romantic love, the heart. Across Johns Hopkins, there's an amazing array of researchers for whom the heart is the heart of their work. Consider just a few....
At the School of Medicine, researchers have discovered that Viagra, the wonder drug shown to jumpstart that other (male) icon of romantic love, also appears to be helpful in reducing the effect of hormonal stress on the heart. In a study led by cardiologist David Kass, healthy men and women test subjects who took Viagra orally before injections of dobutamine (an adrenaline-like chemical that increases heart rate and pumping strength) experienced half as much stimulation to the heart as those who took a placebo. Future studies will look at how safe and effective Viagra might be in modifying other stress stimuli, including adrenalin and hypertension, says Kass.

What could be more romantic than the tale of a lovelorn courtier trying to woo his beloved? This quest is the subject of the 22,000-line epic French poem Roman de la Rose, considered one of the most popular romances of the Middle Ages. Since 1998, Hopkins humanities scholars have been collaborating to digitize manuscripts of the work in order to share it with scholars the world over. Last summer the Hopkins collaborators (from the Sheridan Libraries' Digital Knowledge Center and the Department of Romance Languages) garnered a $717,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will enable them to "expand the riches of this global resource," says Stephen G. Nichols, co-principal investigator on the project.

Johns Hopkins, the birthplace of modern cardiac surgery and the place where balloons and clot-busting drugs were first used to open blood vessels, aims to build on that tradition of "firsts" in heart medicine with the creation of the Johns Hopkins Heart Institute. Launched in 2004, the institute is scheduled to open in 2008 as part of a massive $1 billion redevelopment initiative in East Baltimore. The Heart Institute, which will be located within the new cardiovascular and critical care tower, will integrate advanced diagnostic and therapeutic services and specialists from every branch of cardiac care, including cardiology, cardiac surgery, vascular medicine, radiology, and critical care anesthesia. The goal: close collaboration among faculty aimed at quickly moving research to clinical application.

Coronary heart disease is currently the leading killer of women in the U.S., but the principal test for early detection (the Framingham Risk Estimate, based on factors like age, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and smoking) fails to identify one-third of women likely to develop the disease, according to two recent Hopkins reports. The group of women missed: those with artery-clogging atherosclerosis. Hopkins cardiologist Roger Blumenthal and colleagues found that women with two or more risk factors plus a family history of heart disease were mostly likely to have atherosclerosis. They recommend cardiac CT scans for this group; if buildup is found, doctors can start early intervention — lifestyle changes, aspirin, cholesterol-lowering medications, blood pressure medication — to avert future risk.

Sex and drunken revelry held an important place in the spiritual lives of some ancient Egyptians. So learned the 18 freshmen enrolled last fall in Betsy Bryan's three-credit course, Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll in Ancient Egypt. The Near Eastern Studies professor, who does research each January at the Temple of Mut in Luxor, showed slides of tomb art she's collected while in Egypt — depictions of "festivals of drunkenness" rich in sexual symbolism. Lettuce, for instance, frequently featured in feast scenes, was considered to have been an aphrodisiac, while figs (often shared between lovers) appeared in paintings to echo love poems.

Scientists have seen the future for repairing hearts damaged by heart attacks — and it's stem cells. Last October, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute awarded Hopkins more than $12 million to focus on two major cell therapy projects. The first, led by cardiologist Eduardo Marban, will look at using a patient's own cardiac stem cells to repair tissue after a heart attack or to regenerate weakened heart muscle. (In the lab, Marban recently replicated large numbers of cardiac stem cells in as little as four weeks.) The second project, led by cardiologist Joshua Hare, will continue efforts to use donor mesenchymal stem cells to heal heart damage. (These cells in bone marrow are in an early stage of development, which helps avoid the potential for immune rejection.) Notes Hopkins chief of clinical cardiology Richard Lange, "We are at the forefront of some key medical breakthroughs, including research on a first-ever cure for heart attack in humans, a discovery that would change cardiac care as we know it today."
— Sue De Pasquale

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