Bear bile chemical could help keep hearts in rhythm

A synthesised compound which is also found in bear bile could help prevent disturbances in the heart's normal rhythm, according to research published in the journal Hepatology by a team from Imperial College London.

Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) is manufactured as a drug to decrease production of cholesterol in the body and to dissolve gallstones. It is also present in many traditional Chinese medicines made from bear bile.

The new study suggests it could also potentially treat abnormal heart rhythm or arrhythmia, both in the fetus and in people who have suffered a heart attack.

Laboratory tests suggested that UDCA acts on non-beating pathological heart cells called myofibroblasts, which interfere with how electrical signals travel across the heart.

UDCA is already used to treat a condition called obstetric cholestasis, which is linked to a higher risk of arrhythmia and sudden death in the foetus. UDCA lowers the levels of harmful bile acids which build up in the mother's blood in the disease and can pass into the infant through the placenta.

The study published today demonstrates for the first time that UDCA can prevent arrhythmia by altering the electrical properties of myofibroblasts. These cells are found in the fetal heart but disappear shortly after birth.