New populations of cells found in healthy and disease hearts

30 August 2017
UNSW PhD student Nona Farbehi

Nona Farbehi is a University of NSW PhD student exploring whether certain cells in the heart can heal the heart after damage from myocardial infarction. Her work was recently awarded a prize for the Best Student Poster at the 2017 Stem Cells Australia Retreat.

Cardiovascular disease remains the greatest killer all around the world. Heart failure following myocardial infarction (MI) is in epidemic proportions and is set to increase further, especially in developing countries. Given the low level of replacement of heart cells that naturally occurs after an injury, repairing the heart after MI is still a big challenge.

Stem cell therapies that could enhance replacement of heart muscle, as well as the vascular tissue that is damaged in the wake of injury following a heart attack, would be of enormous benefit to humanity. But cardiac cell therapy is at the critical nexus. While some benefits have been reported in human clinical trials – using either donor bone marrow, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), or involving the patients’ own cardiac stem cells – it is generally agreed that the positive effects are mainly due to factors secreted by the transferred cells rather than stem cell survival, deployment, and differentiation.

Nona is working in a research team at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute that has identified and characterised a population of mesenchymal stem cells in the adult mouse heart that they believe can generate both connective tissue or stromal cells, as well as coronary vascular elements. They are investigating different ways to enhance how to recruit this population of heart cells and encourage them to migrate into the damaged MI zone of the heart.

By using state-of-the-art single-cell RNA sequencing technology, Nona is mapping interaction of genes involved in repair in mouse hearts following different treatments. She and her colleagues discovered a new population of cells that had not been previously reported described.

Hopefully, the deeper understanding how these cells interact will reveal new opportunities for intervention in the events that lead to scarring after MI and ultimately result in better heart regeneration. The group is also developing new ways to examine individual cells, and their patterns of gene expression, in the laboratory using a sophisticated microfluidics.

Nona’s poster was entitled: Single cell RNA-Seq of cardiac PDGFRα+ cells reveals novel populations in healthy and diseased heart.