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Plastic leaching illustration

Plasticizer interaction with the heart

Calling an ambulance during an emergency, emailing a journal article before a 5 p.m. deadline and maintaining conditions during the fifth week of a 6-week lab study, without altering the light or temperature, requires electricity and translates into time, money and lives saved. During critical moments, we appreciate the tiny particles and ions in electric currents that power our phones, computers or laboratory equipment. We seldom think about the speed of these connections or potential disruptors when conditions are stable. The same applies to the electric currents, or electrophysiology, of our heart.

Arrhythmias affect millions of Americans but can be controlled with routine screenings and preventive care. In an intensive care setting, helping a patient maintain a steady heart rate, especially if they are at risk for cardiac complications, may support a faster recovery, shorter hospital stay, reduced health care costs and improved health outcomes, such as avoiding complications from heart failure or stroke.

A preclinical study, entitled “Plasticizer Interaction With the Heart,” appears in the July issue of Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology and examines the role plastic exposure, akin to exposure in a medical setting, has on heart rhythm disruptions and arrhythmias.

changes in heart rhythm due to plastics

New preclinical research finds acute exposure to MEHP, a common plasticizer used in medical equipment, increases risk for alternans and arrhythmias, disruptions in heart rhythm. The images above show changes in heart rhythm, measured by slowed epicardial conduction velocity, enhanced action potential prolongation and impaired sinus node activity.

The research team, led by researchers at Children’s National Health System, discovered increased risks for irregular heart rhythms after exposing intact, in vitro heart models to 30 minutes of mono-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (MEHP), a metabolite from Di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP). DEHP is a chemical commonly used to make plastics pliable in FDA-approved medical devices. This phthalate accounts for 40% of the weight of blood storage bags and up to 80% of the weight of tubes used in an intensive care setting, such as for assisted feeding or breathing, and for catheters used in diagnostics or to conduct minimally invasive cardiac procedures.

The team chose to study the heart’s reaction to 60 µM of MEHP, a level comparable to stored blood levels of MEHP observed in pediatric patients and in neonatal exchange transfusion procedures. They found 30-minute exposure to MEHP slowed atrioventricular conduction and increased the atrioventricular node effective refractory period. MEHP prolonged action potential duration time, enhanced action potential triangulation, increased the ventricular effective refractory period and slowed epicardial conduction velocity, which may be due to the inhibition of Nav 1.5, or sodium current.

“We chose to study the impact of MEHP exposure on cardiac electrophysiology at concentrations that are observed in an intensive care setting, since plastic medical products are known to leach these chemicals into a patient’s bloodstream,” says Nikki Gillum Posnack, Ph.D., a principal investigator with the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “In critical conditions, a patient may have a blood transfusion, require extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, undergo cardiopulmonary bypass or require dialysis or intravenous fluid administration. All of these scenarios can lead to plastic chemical exposure. Our research team wants to investigate how these plastic chemicals can impact cardiac health.”

In this review, Dr. Posnack’s team mentions one reason for the observed changes in the preclinical heart models may be due to the structure of phthalates, which resemble hormones and can interfere with a variety of biological processes. Due to their low molecular weight, these chemicals can interact directly with ion channels, nuclear receptors and other cellular targets.

Existing epidemiological research shows associations between exposure to phthalates and adverse health outcomes, including metabolic disturbances, reproductive disorders, inflammatory conditions, neurological disorders and cardiovascular disease. This is the first study to examine the link between cardiac electrophysiology in intact hearts and exposure to MEHP, comparable to levels observed in an ICU.

Dr. Posnack’s team previously found DEHP reduced cellular electrical coupling in cardiomyocyte cell models, which slowed conduction velocity and produced an arrhythmogenic phenotype. A microarray analysis found heart cells treated with DEHP led to mRNA changes in genes responsible for contracting and calcium handling. Another preclinical study showed DEHP altered nervous system regulation of the cardiovascular system. Future studies to expand on this research may include the use of larger preclinical models or human assessments. For the latter, stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes can be used to compare the safety profile of plastic chemicals with potential alternatives.

An accompanying editorial, entitled “Shocking Aspects of Nonconductive Plastics,” authored by cardiology researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, puts this novel research into perspective. Like Dr. Posnack, the team notes that while the clinical impact plasticizers have on heart health still needs to be determined, the work contributes to compelling data among multiple researchers and shows DEHP and MEHP are not inert substances.

“Toxic plasticizers in children’s toys and baby products hit public headlines 20 years ago, but exposure to these compounds is up to 25x higher in patients undergoing complex medical procedures,” write the University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers. “We readily (and unknowingly) administer these compounds, and at times in high quantity, to some of our most vulnerable patients. This work highlights the need for further investigation into short and long-term plasticizer exposure on cardiac electrophysiology.”

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released a public health statement about DEHP in 2002, noting more research in humans is needed to issue formal warnings against this phthalate.

ATSDR states there is no conclusive evidence about the adverse health effects of children exposed to DEHP in a medical setting, such as procedures that require the use of flexible tubing to administer intravenous fluids or medication. However, the CDC statement includes limits of DEHP exposure, based on preclinical models, used to guide upper DEHP limits in consumer products, including food packaging, drinking water, and air quality in the workplace.

“It’s important to note that this was a preliminary study performed on an ex vivo model that is largely resilient to arrhythmias”, says Rafael Jaimes III, Ph.D., the first author of the study and a senior scientist at Children’s National. “Due to the nature of the design, it was somewhat alarming that we found such significant effects. I predict that electrophysiological disturbances will be more pronounced in models that more closely resemble humans. These types of models should absolutely be studied.”

“And, importantly, our results may incentivize the development and use of new products that are manufactured without phthalates,” Dr. Posnack adds.

These questions are powering Dr. Posnack and her team through a decade-long, multi-institution research investigation to understand how plastic chemicals and medical device biomaterials can impact cardiac health.

Additional study authors for this paper include Damon McCullough, B.S., Bryan Siegel, M.D., Luther Swift, Ph.D., Daniel McInerney, B.S., and James Hiebert, B.S., with the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation and Children’s National Heart Institute, part of Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.; Erick A. Perez-Alday, Ph.D., and Larisa G Tereshchenko, M.D., Ph.D., with the Knight Cardiovascular Institute at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore.; Javier Saiz, Ph.D., and Beatriz Trenor, Ph.D., with Ci2B-Universitat Politecnica de Valencia in Spain and Jiansong Sheng, Ph.D., from CiPA Lab, LLC, in Rockville, Md.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (R00ES023477 and R01HL139472), Children’s Research Institute and Children’s National Heart Institute. NVIDIA corporation provided graphics processing, with partial support by the Direccion General de Politica Cientifica de la Generalitat Valenciana (PROMETEU2016/088).

spectrometer output

Understanding low cardiac output after surgery

spectrometer output

Rafael Jaimes, Ph.D., created an algorithm that is being tested in a pre-clinical model to characterize the light absorbance spectrum from different heart regions using a spectrometer.

After intense cardiac surgery, sometimes a patient’s heart is unable to effectively deliver oxygenated blood and nutrients throughout the recovering body. Known as inadequate or low cardiac output, the condition occurs in about a quarter of patients following surgery with cardiopulmonary bypass, including young children who require complex procedures to correct congenital heart defects at Children’s National Health System.

Researchers at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation are exploring several facets of this challenge, with the goal of better understanding post-operative recovery trajectories in pediatric patients. Rafael Jaimes, Ph.D., a staff scientist at the institute, leads this work to identify when and how low cardiac output occurs, pinpoint the physical hallmarks of this condition and use that information to prevent long term damage and complications after surgery, including cardiac arrest.

“More research needs to be done to understand the cause of this overarching and multi-faceted syndrome,” says Dr. Jaimes. “I’m interested in understanding how metabolic insufficiency contributes to this condition, and also exploring how we can use current imaging and diagnostic tools to measure, track and treat the insufficiencies that contribute to low cardiac output.”

Tracking inadequate oxygen and nutrient delivery to the parts of the heart that have been repaired is one avenue under exploration. Currently, a cardiac-specific real-time device to measure the oxygen state of the heart, while a patient is in post-operative critical care, is under development.

The heart’s complexity has made using current oxygen measurement devices, such as spectrometers, very difficult. To date no tool exists that effectively screens out artifacts and noise to allow clear visualization. However, during his post-doctoral work, Dr. Jaimes has created a new algorithm that may be the first of its kind to accomplish this feat.

This work on low cardiac output recently received a Congenital Heart Defect Research Award, which is a collaborative program of the Children’s Heart Foundation and the American Heart Association that supports innovative research, seeking to understand and treat congenital heart defects.

A new research study will build on his previous studies by using the algorithm to characterize the absorbance spectrum from different heart regions in a pre-clinical model. The data collected will serve as the baseline for development of a prototype spectrometer software, capable of tracking changes in heart oxygenation before, during and after surgery.

The end goal is to more effectively identify when parts of the heart are deprived of oxygen and nutrients and prevent resulting impacts on cardiac metabolism and output. Doing so will decrease short term mortality and morbidity and may also improve circulation systemically, potentially reducing long term health impacts of reduced oxygenation, such as neurodevelopmental disorders.

Photo of nurses in the cardiac intensive care unit at Children's National

Can pyruvate support metabolic function following heart surgery?

Photo of nurses in the cardiac intensive care unit at Children's National

Nurses rush a child to the cardiac intensive care unit at Children’s National Health System.

Can pyruvate, the end product of glycolysis, help improve cardiovascular function in children who have cardiopulmonary bypass surgery and suffer from low cardiac output syndrome (LCOS)? This question is one that Rafael Jaimes, Ph.D., a staff scientist at Children’s National Heart Institute, a division of Children’s National Health System, is studying, thanks to a two-year grant from the American Heart Association.

The competitive grant awards Dr. Jaimes with $110,000 to study how pyruvate may help improve cardiac output among pediatric patients with LCOS. The compound aims to stimulate metabolic function, now treated by inotropic agents, such as dobutamine and milrinone. These agents ensure optimal delivery of oxygen from the heart to the brain, as well as to other organs in the body, following heart surgery. While these agents help patients with cardiac dysfunction, there is still a critical need for safe and effective therapies.

“If there’s any detriment in cardiac output, the heart’s function begins to degrade,” explains Dr. Jaimes. “You see a downward spiral effect with reduced cardiac output because the heart is dependent on its own perfusion. It needs to pump blood throughout the body to survive.”

This is where the pyruvate study, and the grant, will be applied: Can pyruvate target the essential muscle of the heart and reverse this cardiac destabilization – and as soon as possible?

“By increasing the metabolic output of the heart’s local muscle, cardiac output increases,” Dr. Jaimes explains. “That’s going to lead to better recovery.”

Better recovery could be measured by how fast a child recovers from heart surgery as well as how much time they spend in the hospital, clinically referred to as throughput. A faster recovery could also influence a child’s quality of life and reduce overall health care costs.

Based on preliminary data that shows pyruvate improves cardiac function in experimental models after ischemic insult, which is what happens when pediatric patients undergo cardiac surgery, Dr. Jaimes believes the results will likely replicate themselves in his preclinical models.

To start, he’ll test pyruvate using 100 blood samples and discarded tissue from patients. The blood samples will be tested for metabolic markers, including measured pyruvate levels.

Part of what encouraged Dr. Jaimes to study how this compound could complement or replace standard therapies was the encouragement he received from his mentors in the field.

“Nobody has looked into using pyruvate for almost 30 years,” says Dr. Jaimes. “It’s not commercially favorable, there’s no patent on it, it doesn’t have a lot of marketability and there are no financial incentives, so it’s been put aside.”

As part of a discussion with cardiologists at a medical conference in Washington, Dr. Jaimes brought up the idea of using pyruvate for pediatric heart surgeries and received positive feedback.

“Once everyone’s eyes lit up, I knew I was on to something,” says Dr. Jaimes about the encouragement he received to pursue this study.

“You put lactate and glucose in your IV solutions,” adds Dr. Jaimes. “Pyruvate is an essential nutrient. It’s almost an essential sugar so there’s no reason not to put it in. If these cardiologists are intrigued by the project, maybe the American Heart Association will be, too.”

In addition to funding the study, which could support future research about how metabolic makers in the blood can be stimulated to fast-track recovery following heart surgery, the American Heart Association grant is specific to pediatric health outcomes.

“The current state of pharmaceutical treatment for patients recovering from cardiac surgery is designed and created for adults,” says Dr. Jaimes. “From our research in pediatrics, we know that children aren’t small adults.”

Dr. Jaimes explains that children are different on an anatomical and physiological level. Their cells even look and function different, compared to adult cells, because they haven’t matured yet.

While congenital heart defects are rare, they affect 1 percent, or 40,000 births worldwide, they often require multiple surgeries throughout a child’s lifespan. LCOS impacts 25 percent of patients following cardiopulmonary bypass and the timing of treatment is important. In severe cases, insufficient cardiac output following surgery could impact a child’s long-term development, ranging from reasoning, learning, attention and executive function, to developing age-appropriate language and social skills.

“The metabolic insufficiencies I’m looking at, which may help improve the muscle function of the heart, are just one piece of a bigger puzzle in pediatric cardiology,” notes Dr. Jaimes about ongoing research at Children’s National Heart Institute. “We already know pyruvate is safe. We just have to see if it’s effective in supporting a patient’s recovery in the intensive care unit.”

Dr. Jaimes will work with his research mentor Nikki Posnack, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Children’s National Heart Institute, on this preclinical study throughout the grant’s lifecycle, which starts in early January 2019 and ends in late December 2020.