Heart researcher investigating the finest athlete of all mammals – University of Copenhagen

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01 April 2014

Heart researcher investigating the finest athlete of all mammals

Researcher profile

Rikke Buhl is the only professor in Denmark specialising in the equine heart. At the Department of Large Animal Sciences, she conducts research into areas such as atrial fibrillation in sport horses. This virgin area of research is gaining ground globally and may take on major significance for both people and animals.

Rikke Buhl:

Rikke Buhl: "I work a lot – including taking on clinical veterinarian assignments to keep my skills sharp." Photo: Mikal Schlosser.

Rikke Buhl is a 42-year-old veterinary surgeon, PhD and professor.  For 15 fascinating years, she has been conducting research into the equine heart – a peerless and extra large pumping muscle. The horse is a unique athlete among mammals because its cardiac muscle is extraordinarily big in relation to its body weight, and it possesses enormous pumping capacity. Horses and people share a lot of traits as regards the composition of their hearts, and researchers can therefore use the horse as a model for human heart diseases.

What do you find fascinating about the horse’s heart?

I am captivated by the power and superiority the equine heart represents. The horse is the ‘superstar athlete’ among mammals, which makes it an ideal candidate for teaching us more about cardiac function in people who train intensively.

The equine heart is huge, and second to none as regards performance. The ‘cardiac minute volume’ is an expression of the total volume of blood pumped out of the heart per minute. A pig can increase its minute volume 2–3 times through vigorous activity, and a person can achieve a 4–5-fold increase. A horse, however, can increase its minute volume fully 16 times – which says a great deal about its impressive cardiac capacity.

Why is your research area important for people?

Horses and people share an important trait regarding atrial fibrillation. The condition is linked to a range of serious complications, including an elevated risk of stroke and reduced life quality. This is an issue that is becoming ever more relevant in an ageing population. It is difficult to explain the illness, and hard to find a suitable animal model that can help drive research in this area forward. It is most common to use rodents, goats and pigs as models, but atrial fibrillation does not occur spontaneously in these animals. Horses, however, do develop the condition spontaneously – just like people – and one of our ongoing projects has demonstrated that equine hearts readily experience atrial fibrillation in the same way as their human counterparts. This indicates that horses and humans share a number of basic conditions with regard to cardiac function. We are therefore examining distribution and function of ion channels in the equine heart, and investigating the effect of treatment with a variety of antiarrhythmics.

In collaboration with doctors at Rigshospitalet and researchers from other branches of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, we are currently working to develop an equine model for atrial fibrillation that should expand our knowledge about both human and equine hearts. In addition, we in the research group are working to determine what causes the sudden deaths that occur among highly trained sport horses. These fatalities are a mystery which tragically also affects people who train intensively. We are investigating whether defective potassium channels play a role in this devastating tendency. Our research has attracted appreciable attention abroad, with numerous trainers and race organisers interested in studying the knowledge we are steadily accumulating.

Why did you choose to become a researcher?

I grew up in the Himmerland region of Denmark, and there was no academic tradition in my family. When I was a little girl, I dreamed of becoming an airline hostess or a ladies’ hair stylist – and later on my thoughts turned to becoming a vet. I didn’t even consider a career as a researcher while I was studying at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (KVL).

At that time, I envisaged working as a vet out in the field – up to my knees in mud and with a stethoscope around my neck. As my studies progressed, however, my chosen electives weren’t available and so – half in panic, but mostly on the advice of the person who was to become my PhD supervisor – I ended up working on a scientific article about some sick cows on the island of Saltholm. It transpired that they had eaten a particular plant that contains a toxin that made their tails and hooves fall off. I was the detective tasked with solving the age-old mystery with assistance from plant researchers and toxicologists. It turned out to be an extremely exciting and entertaining project. And the desire to become a researcher really flared up when my article was subsequently accepted by the Danish Veterinary Journal (Dansk Veterinær Tidsskrift).

Rikke Buhl: I am a big fan of openness and sparring – which were in rather short supply when I was working on my PhD.

Rikke Buhl: "I am a big fan of openness and sparring – which were in rather short supply when I was working on my PhD." Photo: Mikal Schlosser.

What is the highlight of your career?

I was really proud when I was awarded my PhD. It marked the fulfilment of a personal ambition and served as a reward for years of hard work.

It was also a red letter day when I was selected by the American Association of Veterinarians to participate in a consensus group on heart conditions in sport horses. This involved me working with a handful of people who are without a doubt the leading researchers in the area. This made me feel that my research is really significant – at international level as well.

What drives you in your everyday life?

I am pleased and proud to have been awarded a professorship in 2013. However, a professorship is always the fruit of a solid collective effort. A key task for me is to ensure continuity in a completely new area of research in Denmark – to make sure that we in the group are working towards a shared goal, and that we share knowledge along the way. I am a big fan of openness and sparring – which were in rather short supply when I was working on my PhD.

I think it’s amazing to be able to influence a whole new area of research. Our ambition is to make Copenhagen the first port of call for anyone who needs a large animal model that can shed some light on human atrial fibrillation. It is incredibly exciting to witness a subject area arise, and to expand the research group with highly motivated PhD students – while simultaneously helping to build bridges to doctors, biologists and pharmaceutical experts.

What do you do when you are not working?

I work a lot – including taking on clinical veterinarian assignments to keep my skills sharp. But when I’m off work, I like to spend time with my family. I’m married and have three daughters aged 11, 14 and 17. I have also been blessed with two ‘bonus sons’, so our home is always very busy ... We love to travel together; this summer, we’re taking the whole family backpacking to Indonesia.

Read more about the Department of Large Animal Studies