Tufts Medical Center’s Molecular Cardiology Research Institute Improves the Cardiovascular Health of Cancer Survivors

While treatments for cancer have become more effective in recent years, and cancer survival rates for people in the United States continue to increase, the very treatments that can save and extend lives also have side effects that may affect a patient’s long-term health. One of the more common long-term side effects, which impacts about ten percent of patients who have been treated for cancer, is treatment-induced heart and blood vessel damage, known as cardiotoxicity. Cardiotoxicity from cancer treatment can cause or exacerbate high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure, or abnormal heart rhythms. It poses a major problem for patients predisposed to cardiovascular health problems, and can become a lifelong issue to monitor for younger survivors. When a patient’s cancer has been effectively treated, cardiotoxicity has generally been accepted as a negative aspect of an overall positive health outcome. Physicians and researchers at Tufts Medical Center strongly believe, however, that they can disrupt the status quo, and develop new approaches that may help protect the long-term cardiovascular health of patients who have undergone treatment for cancer. 

Understanding how the damage to the heart and blood vessels occurs in cancer survivors, who are most susceptible, and how to protect them is a challenge being actively pursued by the Molecular Cardiology Research Institute, or MCRI, at Tufts Medical Center. Since its founding in 1998, the MCRI has been a national leader in innovative research at the molecular level which has led to new, lifesaving therapies for patients suffering from cardiovascular diseases. The MCRI, led by Iris Jaffe, MD, PhD, (pictured left) is comprised of 12 investigators and physician-scientists and over 40 researchers and trainees who are all dedicated to studying the molecular mechanisms of common cardiovascular diseases including heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and high blood pressure, and translating their discoveries into new clinical strategies for diagnosis and therapy. 

In their cardio-oncology research efforts, MCRI researchers, led by Dr. Jaffe along with investigators including Howard Chen, PhD, Lakshmi Pulakat, PhD, and Gordon Huggins MD, are studying how heart and blood vessel cells respond to cancer drugs, comparing them to cells that have not been exposed to the drugs, to elucidate how susceptible patients develop heart disease from cancer treatment. The research team is also investigating the use of molecular imaging techniques as a diagnostic tool to detect in real-time any damage that may be occurring in a patient during treatment. With current scanning techniques, it may not be known that a patient has been affected by cardiotoxicity until many months after treatment has been started. At that point, it is often too late to stop or reverse the damage, leaving cancer survivors to suffer with heart disease. A molecular scan that immediately identifies heart damage as it happens could allow patients and clinicians to make decisions about changing the cancer treatment regimen to one with less cardiotoxicity, if possible, and could also lead to the development of new drugs to protect heart and blood vessel cells during treatment for cancer.

The achievements made by this research so far are a reflection of the unique collaboration that exists between the basic science researchers in the MCRI and clinicians from across Tufts Medical Center, including in the Cancer Center and in the Cardio-Oncology program, led by Jenica Upshaw, MD, (pictured right) and with researchers from Tufts University School of Medicine and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, where Cheryl London, DVM, PhD, ACVIM, leads efforts to improve cardiac outcomes for pet dogs that have been treated for cancer. Through this partnership, the entire team is poised to translate the research findings made in the laboratory at the MCRI into treatments that will directly benefit patients.

Says Dr. Jaffe, “Cardio-oncology is a new and evolving field, and we are excited at the MCRI to have the opportunity to leverage the world-class expertise of our researchers to pursue answers to the many questions and challenges that still remain around the relationship between cancer and cardiovascular health. We have been able to make important progress to date in this work through the great collaborations we have with our clinician colleagues and other researchers at Tufts, through which we all share data and knowledge toward our common goals to discover breakthroughs in both cardiology and oncology that will improve overall health outcomes for patients.”

The MCRI’s research on cardio-oncology is among the institute’s many current areas of investigation, which include the impact of aging on cardiovascular health, differences between women and men in cardiovascular disease risk and treatment, and the development of new therapies for heart failure. To learn more about the MCRI and its research initiatives, please visit the institute’s webpage.



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