NEWS | March 27, 2012

UC Davis medical student receives award to study broken-heart syndrome

Editor's note:

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Annahita  Sarcon, a fourth-year medical student at the UC Davis School of Medicine, was awarded a $2,500 grant from the American Medical Association (AMA) Foundation's Seed Grant Research Program to support investigations on broken-heart syndrome, a temporary condition that mimics a heart attack brought on by stressful situations.

Broken-heart syndrome, also known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is thought to affect 2.5 percent of patients seeking treatment for a heart attack worldwide. While blood flow in coronary arteries is not blocked, the flow is reduced, and a part of the heart temporarily enlarges and may not pump well.

First described in Japan in 1991, the condition gets its name from characteristic change in the shape of the heart that occurs during the stress, which resembles an octopus pot, or tako-tsubo. The condition is treatable, with normal heart function typically being restored in a week.

Annahita Sarcon © UC Regents
Annahita Sarcon

"The exact cause and molecular mechanisms of heart-muscle damage from broken-heart syndrome are unclear," said Sarcon, who is currently conducting stem cell research in Spain as a Fulbright scholar. "While adrenaline and other stress hormones may be involved, the goal of my research is to identify specific biological markers and risk factors associated with this condition, which primarily affects post-menopausal women. Because current blood tests cannot distinguish between heart attack and broken-heart syndrome, finding specific markers could lead to a new diagnostic test that could help practitioners better utilize health-care resources, such as cardiac catheterization."
Cardiac catheterization is the gold standard for treating patients with acute blockages in coronary arteries. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Policy, cardiac catheterization is the fourth most commonly performed hospital procedure in the U.S. But the lifesaving treatment is expensive and invasive, and research suggests that a third of individuals with symptoms will have no artery blockage. A diagnostic biomarker for broken-heart syndrome could help rule out heart attack and inform clinical decisions regarding the need for cardiac catheterization.

With the AMA Foundation research funds, Sarcon also will expand the international registry for patients with takotsubo cardiomyopathy under the mentorship of Christian Templin, cardiologist and founder of the international registry for takotsubo cardiomyopathy. She will conduct her studies at the University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland, one of Europe's largest and most renowned medical centers, and anticipates using the opportunity to initiate future collaborations between the UC Davis School of Medicine and her colleagues in Switzerland.

Established in 2000, the Seed Grant Research Program provides small grants to medical students, physician residents and fellows to conduct basic science or clinical research projects. It was created to encourage more physicians to consider research careers. The program not only supports the scientific discoveries of researchers but also gives young investigators a positive grant experience early in their careers.

Click here to view video of broken heart syndrome.

Sarcon is one of only 43 individuals nationwide who received a seed grant this year.

"The AMA Foundation Seed Grant Research Program provides important financial support, motivation and professional development to outstanding investigators who are in the beginning stages of their research careers," said AMA Foundation President Owen Garrick. "Many recipients of this program go on to publish their work, present at conferences and secure larger grants to continue their research advancements."
The AMA Foundation ( advances public health and medical scholarship through philanthropic support of physician-directed initiatives.

The UC Davis School of Medicine is among the nation's leading medical schools, recognized for its research and primary-care programs. The school offers fully accredited master's degree programs in public health and in informatics, and its combined M.D.-Ph.D. program is training the next generation of physician-scientists to conduct high-impact research and translate discoveries into better clinical care. Along with being a recognized leader in medical research, the school is committed to serving underserved communities and advancing rural health. For more information, visit UC Davis School of Medicine at