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Making the heart burn

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9:52am, October 6, 2003

People in the throes of a heart attack usually experience a burning chest pain. Scientists appear to have pinpointed the cause of that pain: It turns out that heart tissue contains the same cell-surface protein that triggers a sensation of fiery pain when the skin becomes too hot or when the tongue tastes chili peppers.

The protein, vanilloid receptor 1 (VR1), sits on nerve cells. In the skin, the receptor produces pain signals in response to heat. In the tongue, it also responds to capsaicin, a compound in chilies and some spices (SN: 11/8/97, p. 297).

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