Business & Tech

Bayer AG teams up with the Broad to tackle congestive heart failure

Massachusetts General Hospital’s Dr. Patrick Ellinor will lead the work at the Broad’s precision cardiology lab.
Broad Institute
Massachusetts General Hospital’s Dr. Patrick Ellinor will lead the work at the Broad’s precision cardiology lab.

It’s the leading cause of hospitalization in the United States for people 85 or older. More than 6 million Americans live with it, and the number is growing. Ultimately, approximately one in five people who are 40 and older will develop it.

Congestive heart failure is a chronic and progressive condition in which the heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should, resulting in fatigue and shortness of breath. It’s increasingly common, partly because more people survive heart attacks that leave the muscle weakened. For many, the prognosis is fatal, with about half of patients diagnosed with it dying within five years.

On Friday, the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG and the nonprofit Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge plan to announce a collaboration they hope will change that.

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Bayer is investing $22 million to start a “precision cardiology laboratory” at the Broad. The venture seeks to combine Bayer’s drug making know-how with the Broad’s gene-sequencing expertise to come up with new treatments for heart disease. And the first disorder in the partners’ sights is heart failure.

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“Patients diagnosed with heart failure have a life expectancy that is similar to patients diagnosed with certain forms of cancer,” said Dr. Joerg Moeller, an executive vice president of Bayer and head of global research and development. “It’s a very deadly disease, and there’s a high medical need for better treatment options.”

The new laboratory will employ about 20 researchers, about half from Bayer and half from the Broad. They will work side by side, once the lab is up and running — within six months to a year. Bayer scientists are scheduled to start arriving next week.

They hope to sequence the genetic information in individual cells taken from healthy and damaged hearts to determine if certain factors predispose someone to heart failure and, if so, what treatments might be devised.

“It could be that there are both genetic and nongenetic causes,” said Dr. Patrick Ellinor, who runs the cardiac arrhythmia service at Massachusetts General Hospital and will be the scientific head of the new laboratory.

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To get cells from diseased human hearts to study, Ellinor said, researchers will take tissue samples from patients whose hearts were removed in transplant operations. To get cells from healthy hearts, they will take tissue from hearts that were donated but never transplanted.

The partnership between Bayer and the Broad is actually their third in the past five years. In 2013, they began working together on potential drugs to fight cancer. Two years later, they started another project to use genomic information to gauge the risk of heart disease.

All told, Bayer is investing at least $100 million in the three ventures, Moeller said.

The precision cardiology laboratory, the 49-year-old Ellinor said, will build on the previous partnership by seeking to “translate all the genetic studies we’ve led into potential new therapies.” Bayer and the Broad would share the rights to any potential therapies that result from the partnership.

Medicine has known about heart failure since ancient times. The Ebers papyrus, a scroll that compiles medical knowledge in ancient Egypt from around 1550 B.C., contains what appears to be one of the earliest documented entries about the condition.

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Starting in the late 18th century, digitalis, a drug obtained from the dried leaves of the common foxglove plant, was long used to treat heart failure.

The number of people living with heart failure in the United States is expected to surge 46 percent by 2030, to more than 8 million, according to the American Heart Association. Paradoxically, Ellinor said, that partly reflects the progress medicine has made in treating cardiovascular disease.

“When I was in training, if you had a heart attack, you were in the hospital for a week,” he said. “Now, you get a stent and you go home the next day.”

But as more patients survive heart attacks and other forms of heart disease, they sometimes live with damaged hearts that have trouble delivering oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the body’s cells.

Everyday activities such as walking, climbing stairs, and carrying groceries become hard. Patients often need to be hospitalized multiple times. Other health problems, including obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, make heart failure even more common.

“I almost think of it as the cancer of heart disease,” Ellinor said. “It’s a horrible disease, and there’s a lot of it.”

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.