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Press releases

Women's and men's hearts: What's different?

Dr Claudia Crocini and her new junior research group are looking at differences between women's and men's hearts at the cellular level. | © private

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Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women and men worldwide. However, there are numerous differences between the hearts of the two sexes. The new junior research group of the German Center for Cardiovascular Research (DZHK) led by PD Dr. Claudia Crocini is looking at these differences at the cellular level. Their goal is to discover new regulatory mechanisms of cardiac function to treat cardiovascular diseases more sex-specifically and thus better. She will receive 1.65 million euros from the DZHK over the next six years for her junior research group.

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Male and female hearts are different even in healthy people, for example, in terms of heart rate, metabolism, or how their genome is regulated. Cardiovascular diseases can also develop differently and the risk of falling ill varies. Nevertheless, women are underrepresented in clinical trials, and in laboratory studies on heart cells, biological sex is rarely considered.

Dr. Claudia Crocini wants to change this and is therefore researching with her new DZHK junior research group at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin how male and female heart cells differ. To do this, she is cultivating heart muscle and connective tissue cells, both cell types that occur in the heart, from induced pluripotent stem cells from healthy men and women. To detect the differences in the heart, the biotechnologist examines how well the heart muscle cells can contract; she also analyses ionic currents and how impulses are transmitted. In addition, she and her team are looking at which sex-dependent factors regulate the activity of the genes.

Less susceptible connective tissue cells in the female heart

"Connective tissue cells from the heart of women are less prone to multiply pathologically. There is evidence for this in the literature," says Crocini. Such pathological growth of connective tissue cells occurs in many heart diseases, including hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. In this disease, the wall of the left ventricle is thickened. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can have genetic causes, for example different mutations in the myosin gene. This gene carries the information for the protein myosin, which, together with other proteins in the heart muscle, ensures that it can contract.

When the studies on healthy heart muscle cells are completed, Crocini plans analyses on a cell line of patients with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy who have a specific mutation in the myosin gene. "With this mutation, the heart tissue of men and women looks different. Differences between males and females are also known from animal models," says Crocini. Among other things, she and her group want to find out how heart muscle and connective tissue cells communicate.

Florence, Boulder, Berlin

Before coming to Berlin, Crocini worked as a postdoc at the University of Colorado Boulder, USA. The move back to Europe also had personal reasons. After all, travel restrictions during the Corona pandemic did not allow her to visit her family in Italy for a long time. She grew up there and studied biotechnology at the University of Florence, specializing in medicine and pharmacology. She already worked on projects on heart muscle diseases in the USA. With her current research projects, she hopes to lay the foundation for developing therapies that specifically address differences between women's and men's hearts.

Scientific contact: Dr. Claudia Crocini, Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Max Rubner Center (MRC) for Cardiovascular Metabolic Renal Research, claudia.crocini(at)charite.de

Contact: Christine Vollgraf, Press and Public Relations, German Center for Cardiovascular Research (DZHK), +49 30 3465 529 02, presse(at)dzhk.de 

Overview of the DZHK junior research groups