Could Bacteria Be One of the Causes of Heart Disease? The UW Leads an $11 Million Study to Find Out.

by Julie Garner

Rod Vroman had just bicycled 19 miles around the Marymoor Park Velodrome in Redmond when it hit him: nausea and a burning sensation down his left arm. "I was 45, a typical "type A" male with cholesterol over 400. I was overweight and sedentary. I also had just finished a high stress job, being principal of a junior high school," he recalls.

Medic One arrived within five minutes and took him to Evergreen Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a moderate myocardial infarction (heart attack) and treated with the clot-buster Streptokinase. He also underwent quintuple bypass surgery within days.

Now age 60, Vroman has enjoyed 15 years of good health by taking his medication, eating right and exercising. Vroman is a lucky man. Coronary heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, killing 476,124 in 1996. Every 29 seconds someone is struck by cardiac arrest.

Over the years medical science has tried to track down the cause of heart disease. It could be a congenital defect or, as in Vroman's case, a sedentary lifestyle and too much fat, conditions that along with smoking are often cited as a cause of heart disease.

But until 1989, no one considered that a common, pear-shaped bacterium whose traces can be found in 80 percent of all men and 70 percent of all women on Earth could be a key to the killer.

Electron micrograph of C. pneumoniae.

Even UW Epidemiology Professor G. Thomas Grayston, the man who discovered the microbe, had no idea it could be dangerous. When he came across it in 1966, "we regarded it as a laboratory curiosity," he says.

Grayston was working on a strain of Chlamydia that causes eye disease. While trying to develop a vaccine, Grayston happened upon a new isolate or form of the bacterium, which he named Chlamydia pneumoniae. Back then, the idea that any bacteria might actually be at the root of heart disease seemed almost preposterous.

But in 1989 Finnish researcher Dr. Pekka Saikku compared people with heart disease to healthy people. Sixty percent of the heart patients carried antibodies to C. pneumoniae, compared with 20 percent of the healthy people.

Two years later, Grayston confirmed this association between C. pneumoniae and heart disease. The fact that this germ might be a cause of the nation's number one killer was such a shock Grayston told an interviewer the experience was like finding out that an old acquaintance might be an ax murderer.

Grayston is now principal investigator of an $11-million grant to see if killing this bug reduces heart attacks. Doctors will prescribe antibiotic treatment for 4,000 patients with coronary artery disease at 26 clinical centers across the United States, including centers at Harborview and Seattle's Group Health Cooperative. Grayston hopes that if antibiotics can eliminate or render C. pneumoniae harmless, then people infected with the bacterium might have fewer heart attacks. The grant is funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Pfizer Corporation.

Home / Current Issue / Archives / Talk Back / Advertising / Columns FAQ / Alumni Website / Search