November 16, 2012

Gene cell discovery offers pacemaker hope

ResearchScientists have reprogrammed an ordinary heart cell to become a specialised cell that can help correct erratic and failing heartbeats, according to newly published findings.

Researchers in Los Angeles used a single gene, called Tbx18, to convert heart muscle cells into pacemaker cells in guinea pigs. These vital cells generate electrical impulses to help create rhythmic muscle contractions.

At the moment, if someone’s heart is beating erratically they will often undergo surgery to have an electronic pacemaker fitted, if they are healthy enough. The gene Tbx18 usually plays a key role developing vital pacemaker cells in embryos.

The ability to turn ordinary heart cells into specialised pacemaker cells is scientifically fascinating

Professor Jeremy Pearson, our Associate Medical Director, said: “The ability to turn ordinary heart cells into specialised pacemaker cells in this way is highly novel and scientifically fascinating

“It opens up the tantalising possibility of using cell therapy to restore normal heart rhythm in people who would otherwise need electronic pacemakers.

“However, much more research now needs to be done to understand if these findings can help people with heart disease in the future.”

The study was published in the Nature Biotechnology journal.

Last year, British scientists showed that a different type of heart cell can be altered into another. Researchers in labs at Oxford University and University College London, led by our own Professor Paul Riley, showed that cells from the heart’s outer layer, called the epicardium, can be turned into beating heart cells by adding a chemical called thymosin beta-4.

Professor Riley’s discovery offers hope for people living with heart failure. But his work wouldn't be possible without your support. Donate online today and help us continue to fund life-saving research.