Top Docs 2012: Matters of the Heart

Meet the Top Doctors who keep an eye on the rhythms of the city.

August 2012

Bank On It

At Children’s Hospital Colorado, docs are testing diseased heart tissue to find new heart failure treatments for kids.

Physicians use a lot of terminology with which most of us aren’t familiar. Drug names, physiological processes, human anatomy—hearing a doc speak is often like listening to a foreign language. Pediatric cardiologist and researcher Dr. Shelley Miyamoto knows all the big words, but she’s not above using phraseology that nonmedical types can understand. “We call it ‘freezer diving,’ ” she says. “We have this big storage unit where we go to get the heart tissue we need for our lab tests.”

Miyamoto is trying to explain what she does in simple language; however, there’s nothing straightforward about the groundbreaking research she and her team of scientists do. For the past few years, Miyamoto has been the primary investigator for the tissue bank study at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Her research focuses on pediatric heart failure, a condition where the heart doesn’t pump enough blood to oxygenate the body. In kids, the disease usually presents in school-age children, 50 percent of whom will either die or require a heart transplant within five years of diagnosis.

Although the condition is common in adults, it is atypical for a child to have the disease. And because so few children present with heart failure, there has historically been very little research into pediatric-specific medicine. “Almost every treatment we have for heart failure is based on research on adults with heart failure,” Miyamoto says. “What we began to notice is that many drugs that are effective in adults don’t work very well in kids.”

Which brings us back to the freezer. Children’s Hospital Colorado owns the largest pediatric heart tissue bank in the world. To find new drugs—or old drugs that might be used in a new way—to combat pediatric heart failure, Miyamoto needs to examine and work with diseased heart tissue. “When a child receives a heart transplant here at Children’s,” she says, “we always ask if we can take samples from the diseased organ for our tissue bank.” Over the past 17 years, 246 patients have donated pieces of their left and right ventricles, atria, and valves—all of which are housed in a three-foot-by-six-foot unit that keeps hundreds of tiny vials frozen at minus 80 degrees Celsius. That tissue, says Miyamoto, is an invaluable tool in her quest to identify the molecular and mechanical differences between heart failure in kids and heart failure in adults. If things go well in the lab, Miyamoto expects the research to result in clinical trials that could begin helping kids in the next few years. And that’s something we can all understand.