Breakthrough offers hope for heart failure

Our researchers have re-awakened a dormant built-in repair mechanism in the heart.

Whilst treatments based on this discovery are still some years away, it takes us a step closer to being able to repair the damage to heart muscle caused by a heart attack.

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We visited Professor Paul Riley in his lab to ask him about his new research.

About the research

Making new heart muscle
Our scientists have created new heart muscle cells (red) that can join up with existing heart muscle (green).
Scientists at University College London have managed to transform special cells from the outer layer of the heart – called the epicardium – into heart muscle cells, in mice. These cells moved into the heart and integrated with existing healthy muscle.

We’ve known for a while that these special epicardial cells can transform into heart muscle while the heart develops in the embryo, however this ability is normally dormant in the adult heart. Our scientists have found this ability could be reactivated in mice using a chemical called tβ4 (thymosin β4).

They discovered that a course of tβ4 seemed to prepare the heart muscle to repair itself. Then when injury to the heart occurred, the epicardium could launch into action and carry out the repair – this significantly restored the heart’s ability to pump blood.

Applying the science

So, how might this translate into treatments for people with heart disease? Well, it still needs more research but lead scientist Professor Paul Riley speculated how their findings might make it into the clinic:

This groundbreaking study shows adult hearts contain cells that can turn into new heart cells

“I could envisage a patient known to be at risk of a heart attack – either because of family history or warning signs spotted by their GP – taking an oral tablet, which would prime their heart so that if they had a heart attack, the damage could be repaired,” Professor Riley said.

Our Associate Medical Director, Professor Jeremy Pearson, said:

“To repair a damaged heart is one of the holy grails of heart research. This groundbreaking study shows that adult hearts contain cells that, given the right stimulus, can mobilise and turn into new heart cells that might repair a damaged heart. The team have identified the crucial signals needed to make this happen.”

“These results strengthen the evidence that in the future there may be a drug, or cocktail of drugs, that could be given to people whose hearts have been damaged by a heart attack, to prevent the onset of heart failure. This is why we have launched our Mending Broken Hearts appeal to raise money for research to turn this vision into reality for heart patients as quickly as possible.”

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

Mending Broken Hearts Appeal

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