Like other cells in the body, heart cells contain mitochondria, which act like tiny powerhouses. Just as a car can’t run well if its engine is faulty, cells can’t do their jobs if their mitochondria malfunction. Diabetes can harm the heart, sabotaging its ability to make energy at the cellular level.

Diabetics are at least twice as likely as nondiabetics to die of heart disease. They’re also at a greater risk of heart attack. With a two-year, $53,000 fellowship from the American Heart Association, Quincy Hathaway, a doctoral candidate in the West Virginia University School of Medicine, is examining how a certain protein, called PNPase, influences mitochondria’s performance in heart cells.

Previous research that Hathaway and his colleagues conducted suggests a connection between high production of the protein and type 2 diabetes.

At the center of his current project is RNA, a chemical messenger that delivers DNA’s protein “blueprint” to the cells that build it.

“We think that PNPase can actually regulate how small RNAs, called microRNAs, are moved into and out of the mitochondrion, and that may affect global cellular function. With diabetes, this type of microRNA transport is disrupted,” he said.

Such a disruption can be disastrous for the heart, which needs a constant supply of energy even when someone is sitting at a desk or asleep in bed.

“The heart contains a tremendous number of mitochondria,” said John Hollander, an exercise physiology professor in the WVU School of Medicine and Hathaway’s mentor. “If you think about it, even at rest, it’s always beating. It’s very, very metabolically active.”

In the future, projects like Hathaway’s may lead to better diagnostics and therapeutics for diabetic patients with cardiovascular complications. Theoretically, a clinician could examine a tissue sample from a patient to identify proteins or metabolic signals that indicate particular cardiac dysfunctions. These insights could inform the patient’s plan of care.

“Diabetes is one of these diseases that continues to increase dramatically,” Hollander said. “This work doesn’t just speak to the global and national diabetes epidemic. It’s also very real for our local population in West Virginia. Getting into the nuts-and-bolts of diabetes can help treat some of the issues that go along with this disease.”

From Cassie Thomas for WVU Today