Inhibition of a Heart-Specific Enzyme After a Heart Attack Decreases Heart Damage and Prevents Remodeling

Cardiac Troponin I-interacting Kinase or TNNI3K is an enzyme that was initially identified in fetal and adult heart tissue, but was undetectable in other tissues. The function of this enzyme remains unknown, but Chinese scientists showed that overexpression of TNNI3K in cultured heart muscle cells causes them to blow up and get large (hypertrophy). Earlier this year, a research team from Peking Union Medical College showed that overexpression of TNNI3K in mice caused enlargement of the heart (Tang H., et al., J Mol Cell Cardiol 54 (2013): 101-111). These results suggested that TNNI3K is a potential therapeutic target for heart attack patients.

To that end, Ronald Vagnozzi and his colleagues in the laboratory of Thomas Force at Temple University School of Medicine and their collaborators designed small molecules that can inhibit TNNI3K activity, and these small molecules decrease cardiac remodeling after a heart attack in rodents. Large animal trials are planned next.

In the first experiments of this paper, Vagnozzi and others showed that the levels of TNNI3K in the heart increase after a heart attack. Measurements of TNNI3K protein levels failed to detect it in all tissue other than the heart. Furthermore, it was present throughout the heart, and mainly in heart muscle and not in blood vessels, fibroblasts, and other types of non-muscle heart tissues.

Next, Vagnozzi and others measured TNNI3K protein levels in heart transplant patients. The heart tissues of these patients, who had badly dysfunctional hearts showed higher than usual levels of TNNI3K protein. Thus, TNNI3K is associated with heart tissue and is up-regulated in response to heart dysfunction.

The next experiment examined the effects of overexpressing the human TNNI3K gene in mice. While the overexpression of TNNI3K did not affect heart function of structure under normal circumstances, under pathological conditions, however, this is not he case. If mice that overexpressed TNNI3K where given heart attacks and then “reperfused,” means that the blood vessel that was tied off to cause the heart attack was opened and blood flowed back into the infarcted area. In these cases, mice that overexpressed TNNI3K had a larger area of cell death in their hearts than their counterparts that did not overexpress TNNI3K. The reason for this increased cell death had to do with the compartment in the cell that generated most of the energy – the mitochondrion. TNNI3K causes the mitochondria in heart muscle cells to go haywire and kick out all kinds of reactive oxygen-containing molecules that damage cells.

Cell damage as a result of reactive oxygen-containing molecules (known as reactive oxygen species or ROS) activates a pathway in heart cells called the “p38” pathway, which leads to programmed cell death.

p38 signaling

Once Vagnozzi and his colleagues nailed down the function of TNNI3K in heart muscle cells after a heart attack, they deleted the gene that encodes TNNI3K and gave those TNNI3K-deficient mice heart attacks. Interestingly enough, after a heart attack, TNNI3K-deficient mice showed much small dead areas than normal mice. Also, the levels of the other mediators of TNNI3K-induced cell death (e.g., oxygen-containing molecules, p38, ect.) were quite low. This confirms the earlier observations that TNNI3K mediates the death of heart muscle cells after a heart attack, and inhibiting TNNI3K activity decreases the deleterious effects of a heart attack.

And now for the pièce de résistance – Vagnozzi and his crew synthesized small molecules that inhibited TNNI3K in the test tube. Then they gave mice heart attacks and injected these molecules into the bellies of the mice. Not only were the infarcts, or areas of dead heart muscle cells small in the mice injected with these TNNI3K inhibitors, but the heart of these same mice did not undergo remodeling and did not enlarge, showed reduced scarring, and better ventricular function. This is a proof-of-principle that inhibiting TNNI3K can reduce the pathological effects of a heart attack.

This strategy must be tested in large animals before it can move to human trials, but the strategy seems sound at this point, and it may revolutionize the treatment of heart attack patients.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).