It’s an enzyme called Aldehyde dehydrogenase. Specifically it’s a version of this enzyme designated as ALDH-2. Used to burn off alcohol in the liver, it also acts against toxins released when fats break down during a heart attack.

Now a team led by Stanford researchers has created a synthetic version of the enzyme, aldA-1, that could mimic the effect upon injection and help the enzyme do its job.

One plan would be to inject it along with nitroglycerin, helping those 40% of East Asians who don’t respond well to that drug. But here is a clue — those same people can’t handle their alcohol.

Thomas Hurley of Indiana University, who worked on the study, said aldA-1 works by signaling ALDH-2 directly to get to work protecting the heart muscle in breaking down fats.

By repairing damaged fats during a heart attack, the enzyme keeps cells from dying, reducing the actual damage to the muscle. The synthetic version may also re-activate ALDH-2 molecules that have mutated.

In the study of aldA-1, the team found that damage to rat hearts was cut by 60% when the synthetic enzyme was used.

Heartwire contacted Dr. Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute, who noted that many chemicals have been found to work in studies of rats, like this study, but were later found not to work in people.

Still, even he said this deserves a follow-up.

Pharmacologist Daria Mochly-Rosen of Stanford, who headed the study, said the finding may also help in the treatment of other diseases caused by malfunctioning ALDH-2, including Alzheimer’s.

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