Couple hopes research will mend 'broken hearts' of AFib patients

VIDEO: Lauren Verno reports on Atrial fibrillation and how one couple is working together to mend borken hearts.

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is an irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke and heart failure.

The American Heart Association says at least 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib, a condition that occurs when the upper chambers of the heart experience chaotic electrical signals.

Dr. Rolf Bodmer, a professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys, and Dr. Karen Ocorr, an assistant professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys, are a husband and wife team working to mend broken hearts.

They spend their days -- and sometimes their nights -- looking for the genetic mechanism that causes AFib.

"We sometimes bring our work home in the sense that even at the dinner table, we will discuss some issues, you know, can this be, can this not be,” Bodmer said.

Aging, diet, high blood pressure, even previous heart surgery can lead to AFib. They may find the genetic cause in fruit flies. Flies’ genes are easy to manipulate and flies age quickly, so results come in months, not years. 

“We’re trying to understand the genetic basis for why atrial fibrillation happens, and if we understand that genetic basis, we have a chance to identify targets we can use to develop drugs and therapies,” Ocorr said.

Donna Marie Robinson is watching AFib research advance closely. Three years ago, she thought she was fit and healthy, then she collapsed. The diagnosis: AFib, ventricular tachycardia, heart failure and more. She’s had to curb her active lifestyle. 

“I would want to be with my friends in the spinning room, and I can’t. I’d be … my defibrillator would probably shock me off the bike,” Robinson said.

She’s hopeful a cure is close. 

Ocorr believes they’ll find a genetic network for atrial fibrillation. Then, they can start testing therapeutics both on fruit flies and on human tissue. They’re already getting AFib patient tissue samples from cardiologists around the world for further testing.