John Teerlink has always had a fascination with science. He majored in comparative religious studies and minored in cell biology at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. While these areas of study may seem like they are on opposite ends of the spectrum, Teerlink says they have worked together in his favor — they combined his keen interest in science and people.
After graduating from Swarthmore, he headed to Harvard Medical School, where he decided on cardiovascular medicine.
Teerlink, who is also the director of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center Heart Failure Clinic and Clinical Echocardiography Laboratory, says that more than 6 million people are affected by heart failure in the U.S. every year. It’s preventable, but does not get the attention that it should, he says.
Teerlink took some time on a recent evening to talk about heart failure research.
Most people aren’t aware that there is a difference between heart failure and a heart attack. Can you explain this?
A heart attack involves chest pain and often sudden death. Heart failure is very different. It’s a process, but it can be prevented — at least for some time. It is the inability of the heart to pump blood at a normal rate, so there is a shortness of breath and edema. Many people often feel as if they are drowning.
What is the typical prognosis for someone who has been diagnosed with heart failure?
Over the last 20 years, serious progress has been made. Before, there was only a 50 percent chance the patient would live for 1 to 5 more years. That’s worse than most cancers. Now there is a 6 to 25 percent chance that treatment won’t work. The goal is to keep improving those numbers.
What are the most important things a patient can do to manage heart failure?
Find a physician well versed in a holistic approach. Lifestyle changes are also important; quit smoking, cut back on salt, exercise and eat a healthy diet.
You were published in the Aug. 20, 2011 issue of The Lancet for a possible breakthrough medication. What has happened since then in regards to your findings and advancements?
The currently available drugs that are used to improve heart function are necessary and useful, but they have dangerous side effects.
In 2011, two articles were published in The Lancet reporting the results of a first-in-human study with an intravenous drug that improves heart function without the dangerous side effects. Omecamtiv mecarbil is the first of a new class of agents that improves the function of proteins of the heart.
I am very excited about the potential this has to contribute to improved care of patients with heart failure.
Have you been published elsewhere?
I have over 100 publications in academic medical journals on clinical care and research, mostly in the field of heart failure.
Your research has garnered international attention. How has this affected your work?
I have been fortunate enough to be given more opportunities to speak and share the data than I have time to do! (Laughs) I have given talks on the research in multiple countries including France, Germany Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea.
What do you see for the future of heart failure therapy?
Continued but slow progress. Despite the New York Times or television announcements about finding a cure for cancer or some other thing, it’s all hype. There are new medicines and devices, yes, but it takes time and lots of work. I do believe there will be some great advancements in the future.
How did you become involved in the Challenge Failure event here in Lodi?
(Through) Robin Boriack, the founder. Her late husband Marc was a patient of mine, and she was shocked by how many people are affected yet how little attention the disease gets. It costs billions in health care and millions are affected, yet it can be prevented. I come to the Challenge Failure event as a cheerleader of sorts for her, and, of course, in memory of Marc. Once you get to know the patients very well, it’s hard to see them go.