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Path to the heart

boxerStudent explores molecular pathways leading to boxer heart disease

The boxer is a stocky, short-haired dog known for its strength and perpetual energy, and for its disposition to a heart condition called arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, or ARVC.

Although no one knows for sure, some experts believe that up to 50 percent of Boxers suffer from the condition, an electrical conduction disorder which causes the heart to beat erratically, leading to collapse and sometimes sudden death.

Veterinary student Eva Oxford has been researching ARVC in boxers for more than six years. She began the project as a doctorate student at SUNY Upstate Medical University, where she was studying cardiac arrhythmias in humans, and has continued since enrolling in the College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008. “ARVC is also a human disease, so this work is relevant to boxers and relevant to humans,” she explained.

Oxford – under the guidance of Dr. Sydney MoÏse, professor and chief of cardiology – is looking into changes in gene expression in the hearts of boxers to explain this mysterious condition. The research is funded by a grant from the Morris Animal Foundation.

ARVC is characterized by the infiltration of fat and fibrous tissue in the right ventricle of the heart. Oxford and MoÏse believe this infiltration is related to a reduction in the number of proteins that mechanically hold cardiac cells together and allow transmission of electrical signals. “The infiltration is pretty specific to the right ventricle, and nobody knows why,” she said.

Their theory is that differences in gene expression in the right versus left ventricles ultimately lead to the condition.

In her research, Oxford uses polymerase chain reaction techniques to study changes in gene expression, as well as electron and confocal microscopy to directly examine the hearts of Boxers afflicted with the disease.

“Understanding the complex molecular pathways in the heart will really help us hone in on the best treatments for dogs,” she said. “Right now, we’re perfecting the treatments, but the ultimate hope is that one day we will fully understand the mechanisms which lead to this disease.  This understanding could help us to eradicate ARVC in the boxer population.”