News Release 

Study helps unravel why pregnant women develop heart failure similar to older patients

Researchers at Penn Medicine uncover more genetic mutations that predispose women to peripartum cardiomyopathy, with implications for the future of increased genetic testing

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Research News

PHILADELPHIA-- Researchers at Penn Medicine have identified more genetic mutations that strongly predispose younger, otherwise healthy women to peripartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM), a rare condition characterized by weakness of the heart muscle that begins sometime during the final month of pregnancy through five months after delivery. PPCM can cause severe heart failure and often leads to lifelong heart failure and even death. The study is published today in Circulation.

PPCM affects women in one out of every 2,000 deliveries worldwide, with about a third of those women developing heart failure for life, and about five percent of them dying within a few years. Maternal mortality in the United States has doubled in the last 20 years, and PPCM is a leading cause of these deaths. Previously, the reasons behind why women developed PPCM remained a mystery until a 2016 study strongly suggested that some genetic mutations predispose women to the disease. Zoltan P. Arany, MD, PHD, the Samuel Bellet Professor of Cardiology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania was also the senior author of that study. This newly released study shines a light on four more genetic variants that had not previously been associated with PPCM. It found that this genetic profile is highly similar to that found in patients with non-ischemic dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a very similar disease that typically impacts middle-aged men and women, and one that the medical community knows more about.

"This study provides the first extensive genetic and phenotype landscape of PPCM and has major implications for understanding how PPCM and DCM are related to each other," said Arany. "It shows that predisposition to heart failure is an important risk factor for PPCM, suggesting that approaches being developed for DCM may also apply to patients with PPCM."

For the study, Penn researchers identified nearly 470 women with PPCM, retrospectively, from several academic centers in the United States and abroad, and looked at clinical information and DNA samples. Then, they performed next-generation sequencing on 67 genes, including a gene known as TTN, which generates a large protein that controls how heart muscle cells contract and pump blood. 10.4 percent of the patients sampled showed shortened variants in the TTN gene, compared with just 1.2 percent of the reference population. Researchers also found overrepresentation of shortened variants in three other genes not previously associated with PPCM, but previously associated with DCM.

Researchers hope this will push for changes to allow physicians to follow similar, well-established genetic testing practices and counseling guidelines already used for patients with DCM, as well as gene-specific therapies.

"We believe this study shows how important genetic screening and counseling are for women who develop PPCM, something that isn't currently common practice, and perhaps even for their female family members of child-bearing age," Arany said. "As a physician, knowing you have a patient with PPCM who shows these genetic mutations would lead you to make changes in care, such as lowering the threshold for defibrillator use in the case of high-risk variants, or counseling family members on their risk of developing PPCM."

While this study shines an important light on the genes in play for women who develop PPCM, what needs further study is how pregnancy triggers it in some women with a specific genetic predisposition, as not all women with these gene variants will develop PPCM when they get pregnant.

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The study's first author, Rahul Goli, MD, is a cardiology fellow at the University of California San Francisco, which he began after completing his residency at Penn Medicine, where he led the research for this study.

Funding for this study was provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH HL075038 to IMAC2; HL102429 to IPAC; AG17022, HL089847 and HL105993 to KBM; and NIH CTSA TR001878, DOD W81XWH18, and NIH HL126797 to ZA).

Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $8.9 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $496 million awarded in the 2020 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center--which are recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report--Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; and Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.

Penn Medicine is powered by a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 44,000 people. The organization also has alliances with top community health systems across both Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, creating more options for patients no matter where they live.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2020, Penn Medicine provided more than $563 million to benefit our community.

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