An enzyme that helps the human body break down alcohol has another beneficial function, researchers say: In rat studies the enzyme reduces the amount of damage during a heart attack. Researchers also developed an experimental drug that can increase levels of the enzyme in rats, and say these findings could lead to a drug that could prevent damage to the heart from heart attack[s] or during coronary bypass surgery and other events in which the heart does not receive enough blood [Reuters].
During a heart attack, a clot blocks blood flow to the heart. The lack of oxygen and build up of toxins causes tissue to die. This is also a danger during coronary bypass surgery, when blood flow is redirected to allow surgeons to operate [BBC News]. Researchers believe the enzyme works by removing toxic molecules known as free radicals from the cells that are struggling to live through the episode of oxygen deprivation. Although not all cardiac damage is avoided, “any time you can save cells, you have a better chance of recovery,” says study co-author Thomas Hurley [Scientific American].
In the study, published in Science [subscription required], researchers injected healthy rats with the experimental drug that boosted the activity of the so-called ALDH2 enzyme, and then blocked the flow of blood into their hearts. The hearts of rats that received the drug suffered 60 percent less damage than the rats who received nothing, researchers found. While the results are promising, researchers caution that any human tests are a long way off.
But the finding sheds light on phenomenon that researchers have puzzled over for years: why moderate drinkers tend to have less severe heart attacks than teetotalers. Alcohol, in small amounts, preconditions the heart to resist damage, but until now, the reason for the preconditioning has been unknown [HealthDay News]. Now, researchers hypothesize that moderate drinkers have higher levels of the ALDH2 enzyme in their systems, which helps prevent damage.