Researchers at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron (CLS) in Saskatoon have discovered the cause of hearth arrhythmia.

Using the powerful x-rays of the synchrotron, Filip Van Petegem, a molecular biologist from the University of British Columbia, was able to build a 3D model of the heart at a molecular level. Using the model, Van Petegem was able to see the molecular process of a heart arrhythmia happen.

“It’s gratifying to be able to understand a particular disease that otherwise we only have a very conceptualized understanding of,” Van Petegem said in a phone interview from British Columbia.

The heart runs on calcium, and before each heartbeat, calcium ions rush into heart muscle cells. Next, a protein opens the pathway for calcium to be released from inside the cell, which causes the contraction.

Mutations in the path-opening protein have been linked to arrhythmia and sudden death in otherwise people.

Understanding the link between the protein and the genetic disease give researchers a starting point to develop new drugs to prevent arrhythmia.

“Prior to randomly starting drugs it’s really important to have a molecular understanding,” Van Petegem said.

Van Petegem said his work wouldn’t have been possible in Canada if not for the CLS. “It really means it accelerates our research. When you look at molecular effects, you reach a limit of what a microscope can do. The only way is the indirect method of xrays and they’re generated at Canadian light source,” he said.

The CLS is the only synchrotron facility of it’s kind in Canada. For director of research Tom Ellis, discoveries like Van Petegem’s are precisely what why the CLS exists.

The discovery also helps put Saskatchewan on the map.

“Having the CLS in Saskatoon and in Saskatchewan has had tremendous benefits to the province,” Ellis said.

While Van Petegem’s project came from the University of British Columbia, roughly one third of the projects taking place at the CLS are done by Saskatchewan researchers.