Discoveries Magazine


The Timekeeper


Photo: Misha Gravenor

Name: Eugenio Cingolani, MD, Director, Cardiogenetics-Familial Arrhythmia Clinic, Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology Section, Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute

[ Heart rhythm disorders and electrophysiology expert; drummer (not expert) ]

A natural metronome: More than 150,000 Americans each year have an electronic pacemaker implanted to help their hearts beat normally. Eugenio Cingolani, MD, is developing a radically different kind of pacemaker — one made of a patient’s own cells.

Setting the pace: A healthy heart contains a natural pacemaker: the sinus node. Dr. Cingolani’s team is recreating this specialized cluster of cells in animal models. “What we did was inject a single gene that reprogrammed normal heart cells into functioning pacemaker cells,” he says. The animals receiving the gene showed faster heartbeats than those that did not — and the improvement lasted for the duration of the 14-day study.

Count off: Dr. Cingolani arrived at Cedars-Sinai as a cardiology fellow in 2008 and scored a Sports Spectacular fellowship in 2010.

Drum fill: “Electrophysiology interests me because it describes complex mechanisms that lead the heart to beat for life. I’m always looking for gaps between our knowledge and patient treatment.”

The bridge: Pacemaker infections, while not common, are serious and require removal of the device. The biological pacemaker could act as a bridge. Plus, performing multiple procedures increases the risk of complications, especially for pediatric patients. “Children grow, but pacemakers don’t stretch. For our youngest patients, the potential of biological pacemakers is fantastic.”

Drum head: Dr. Cingolani is enamored of rhythm in all its forms and has played the drums since he was 10.

Changing tempo: To decompress, he heads out to sea in his Star-class racing boat in Santa Monica Bay. He sailed competitively in his home country of Argentina.

Staccato: When it comes to implantable devices, miniature is best. One pacemaker under study is the size of a large pill, but nothing else in development may be quite as tiny as a single gene!

Cued up: Dr. Cingolani and his colleagues’ follow-up studies already are showing promising results. “We have seen that the biological pacemaker can prolong results beyond two weeks, and we have also shown that the animals have a very good response.” He hopes to initiate human clinical trials with the biological pacemaker within two years.

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