How to mend a broken heart: Drug fixes (physical) effects

Alexandra Thompson
·3 min read
Red paper 'broken heart' with plaster on textured wood background.
Scientists may have discovered a cure for the physical effects of a broken heart. (Stock, Getty Images)

Whether it's sobbing in front of a rom-com, listing your ex's faults or letting off steam with friends, everyone has their own cure for heartbreak.

While the old adage "time heals all wounds" is true for most, so-called "broken heart syndrome" can cause lasting damage.

Known as stress cardiomyopathy, emotional turmoil can trigger dysfunction of the heart muscle, affecting its ability to pump efficiently.

Cardiomyopathy – a general term for heart disease – has no set treatment, with complications being fatal in severe cases.

Read more: 'Broken heart syndrome' on the rise during pandemic

Scientists from Monash University in Melbourne have found, however, that a cancer drug could reverse and even prevent the physical damage caused by a broken heart.

Side view young woman looking away at window sitting on couch at home. Frustrated confused female feels unhappy problem in personal life quarrel break up with boyfriend or unexpected pregnancy concept
Broken heart syndrome – medically known as 'stress cardiomyopathy' – can be caused by a break up, bereavement, abuse, financial concerns or even surviving a disaster. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

"We show for the first time a drug that shows preventative and therapeutic benefit is important to a healthy heart," said lead study author Professor Sam El-Osta. 

"The drug not only slows cardiac injury, but also reverses the damage caused to the stressed heart."

Read more: Student develops 'severe' heart failure after excessive energy drink consumption

In a typical year, around 2,500 people develop stress cardiomyopathy in the UK, with the risk highest among women over 50.

In the US, one study found it affects 0.02% of hospitalised patients, but its exact prevalence is unclear.

Stress cardiomyopathy – also known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy – occurs when the left ventricle, the heart's main pumping chamber, is weakened.

This can be brought on by an emotional trigger, like bereavement, abuse, financial worries or even surviving a disaster, like an earthquake.

Although it's still unclear, stress hormones are thought to flood the heart, triggering changes to its cells or blood vessels, which then prevent the left ventricle from contracting effectively.

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This often manifests as heart attack-like symptoms, including chest pain, breathlessness and palpitations.

Most recover within two months, however, around one in five (20%) endure heart failure when the organ is unable to pump blood around the body efficiently. 

In rare cases, stress cardiomyopathy can trigger life-threatening strokes, dangerously low blood pressure or chaotic heart rhythms.

Watch: Pandemic leading to 'broken heart syndrome'

To help uncover a stress cardiomyopathy treatment, the Monash scientists analysed the effectiveness of the cancer drug suberanilohydroxamic acid (SAHA).

Approved in the US and Australia but not the UK, SAHA "provides a protective benefit to genes".

It has previously been shown to "improve cardiopulmonary function"; that which relates to the heart and lungs.

To better understand SAHA's potential, the scientists induced cardiomyopathy in mice, some of which were treated with the drug.

Cardiomyopathy caused tissue in the rodents' left ventricle to die, with the scientists also discovering an elevated level of collagen. Protein accumulation is said to be "characteristic" of stress cardiomyopathy.

SAHA "attenuated" this injury by decreasing the collagen levels, leading to a "vast improvement", the scientists wrote in the journal Signal Transduction and Targeted Therapy.

The pathways "directly regulated" by cardiomyopathy and "reversed by SAHA" included heart failure, scarring to the organ and further disease, according to the scientists.

"This pre-clinical study describes a new standard in preventative and therapeutic potential using a cardioprotective drug that targets genes in the heart," said Professor El-Osta.

The scientists have stressed further research is required. They also plan to investigate why women are more prone to stress cardiomyopathy, with almost nine females enduring the condition for every one man.

"Based on these promising results, we are focussed on the continued development of compounds like SAHA to improve cardiac benefit and healthier life," added Professor El-Osta.