Scientists have discovered a way to stimulate muscle cell growth in the heart, limiting the damage to this vital organ after a heart attack. It’s hoped the exciting research, which was conducted by Professor Eldad Tzahor from the Weizmann Institute of Science in collaboration with Professor Richard Harvey at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute (VCCRI), could help the 55,000 Australians who suffer a heart attack each year.
Heart attacks still claim the lives of 26 Australians every day – that’s one heart attack every ten minutes.
Heart attack occurs when one of the vessels that feed blood to the heart muscle becomes blocked. Within just minutes of a heart attack, heart muscle cells begin to die on mass. Starved of oxygen, billions of cells can be lost, causing permanent damage to the organ.
Scientists have now found a new way to potentially regenerate the heart after a heart attack by replacing lost muscle cells. According to Professor Richard Harvey, this is an important step forward toward repairing a broken heart.
“Unlike blood, hair or skin cells, which can renew themselves throughout life, cell division in the heart virtually comes to a standstill shortly after birth, which means the heart can’t fully regenerate if it is damaged later in life,” Professor Harvey explained.
“The scientists wanted to find a better way to stimulate the regeneration of heart muscle cells in adults, to improve recovery after a heart attack. Previous studies have demonstrated that it is possible to coax heart muscle cells to proliferate again, but only at very trivial levels.
“What the research team has been able to do is boost heart muscle cell numbers by as much as 45% after a heart attack. That’s a huge improvement!”
Scientists focused on a signalling system in the heart driven by a hormone called ‘neuregulin’. By switching the neuregulin pathway to ‘turbo charge’ the researchers found that heart muscle cells continued to divide in a spectacular way in both the adolescent and adult periods.
Stimulating the neuregulin pathway during a heart attack lead to replacement of lost muscle.
“It’s a big achievement that will focus the attention of the field on heart muscle cell replacement as a therapeutic option for ischemic heart disease.
“The dream is that one day we will be able to regenerate damaged heart tissue, much like a salamander can regrow a new limb if it is bitten off by a predator. Just imagine if the heart could learn to regrow and heal itself. That would be the ultimate prize!”
The study was published in Nature Cell Biology.
Professor Richard Harvey is the co-leader of Stem Cells Australia's Cardiac Regeneration and Repair research theme. Together with Professor Robert Graham and international colleagues, Richard Harvey has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Fondation Leducq to improve our understanding and treatment of cardiovascular disease - Sydney researchers part of international collaboration to develop new approaches to treat heart disease.
Australian researchers help find new way to regrow heart muscle [Sydney Morning Herald, 6 April 2015]
Heart muscle cells regrown in medical research breakthrough [The Guardian, 7 April 2015]
Helping the heart repair itself after a cardiac arrest: researchers say they've worked out how [ABC Radio AM, 7 April 2015]
Scientific breakthrough could give new hope to heart-attack patients [SBS, 7 April, 2015]