The Great Ape Heart Project and How It Could Help Humans With Heart Conditions

Q. It must be a lot of work to train the animals to cooperate. Why do it this way?

A. "We've been looking at these hearts for a long time with general anesthesia. Some of the general anesthetics that we use depress blood pressure and affect cardiac function. We started to wonder what the heart looked like in an awake animal. My goal was to see the cardiac function without the effect of anesthesia and monitor response to treatment without having to do repeated anesthetic events, especially since risks from anesthesia go up in older guys with really bad hearts.

"When I started in this business, no one thought that could be done. Now we can do awake echocardiograms, measure blood pressure and get blood samples from orangutans — all without anesthesia. The keepers spend a large amount of time training the animals, and we use volunteer echo sonographers who do this on humans every day. The animals love it because they get a lot of attention and treats. I'm the lucky one who gets to come in for the fun stuff at the end."

Q. Can the results from this project tell us something about human health?

A. "Human heart disease is certainly a big risk factor for mortality. In humans, we mostly see coronary artery disease, so we expected to see that in gorillas, especially because we knew that their serum cholesterol levels are high. But we don't see that in gorillas. Instead, we tend to see fibrosis in the heart muscle, kind of like scar tissue forming, and that's a lot different. You do see that in humans, but it's not common.

"So our questions are: Why is it different? If gorillas have such high cholesterol levels, why aren't they getting coronary artery disease? And is it the same in all apes? The last one is a big question. And we're just starting to look at orangutans more closely to get to the answer. We even see a couple variations of it in gorillas, so we don't know if it's one syndrome that progresses or if we're dealing with two different syndromes.

"The bottom line is that we can learn a lot from each other. I think we're going to learn a lot from the research that's done with human cardiac disease that will apply to apes, and vice versa. What we learn from apes will help humans in the future."

Linda Lombardi is a former zookeeper, college professor and the author of Animals Behaving Badly, a new book that grew from her blog of the same name.


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