New heart protein that could help mend broken hearts

17 September 2015        

Lab gear

New research published online by the journal Nature and carried out by scientists at Stanford University has identified a protein that could help to regenerate damaged heart tissue when grafted onto a heart using a bioengineered heart patch.

There is currently no way of repairing heart muscle that is damaged, often following a heart attack, leaving the heart unable to pump blood around the body as well as it used to. This condition is called heart failure and more than half a million people in the UK are living with its debilitating effects.

The researchers from Stanford University pinpointed a protein called Fstl1 found in a cell layer covering the surface of the heart, called the epicardium, that encouraged the growth of new heart cells in a petri dish. The researchers then grafted this protein on to the damaged heart tissue of animal models that had suffered a heart attack. They did this by attaching a bioengineered patch, loaded with Fstl1, to the damaged tissue. Within two to four weeks of receiving the patch, heart muscle cells began to proliferate and the animals progressively recovered heart function.

Christopher Allen, our Senior Cardiac Nurse, said: “A heart attack can cause irreversible damage to your heart muscle that can lead to debilitating heart failure. There is currently no cure for heart failure and in its severest form, the chances of surviving for more than five years are worse than many forms of cancer.

“This research, carried out in animal models, has identified a protein that could be used to encourage the growth of new heart cells when grafted on to a damaged heart. More research is now needed to see if this method is effective in humans - and potentially provides another piece of the puzzle that may lead to a cure for heart failure in years to come.

“Funding research in to regenerative medicine, such as the programmes we fund through our Mending Broken Hearts Appeal, offers hope for finding new treatments or even a cure for heart failure.”

New hope for heart failure

The field of regenerative medicine has the potential to find new ways to the reverse the irreparable damage to the heart caused by a heart attack.  To accelerate this life-saving work, we launched our Mending Broken Hearts Programme in 2011, with the aim of raising money to fund research that could literally begin to mend broken hearts within ten years.

BHF Professor of Regenerative Medicine, Paul Riley, said:  “In previous BHF funded research we’ve demonstrated that it’s possible to reactivate the epicardium in adult mice to improve the heart’s ability to repair itself after a heart attack.

“This research now suggests that a specific protein produced by the epicardium during pregnancy could be utilised to stimulate new heart muscle growth in a damaged adult heart.

“Further research is now needed to see if this method is effective in humans. However, the ability to deliver this protein through a bioengineered patch represents an approach that could be translated to human patients to restore lost muscle following a heart attack.”

Help fund life saving research

Our Mending Broken Hearts Appeal has raised over £25million to help boost vital research into regenerative medicine that is already making progress in finding potential new ways to prevent and treat heart failure. This includes funding 26 new research grants across the UK and establishing three new state-of-the-art Centres of Regenerative Medicine at top UK universities.

As part of Appeal, we are working with Oxford University to set out plans to create the Institute of Developmental and Regenerative Medicine, bringing together world-leading scientists in immunology, neurology and cardiovascular research to drive innovation in regenerative medicine. The Centre will be led by BHF Professor of Regenerative Medicine, Paul Riley, from the University of Oxford.

However we need to raise more funds to make this ground breaking research centre a reality.

Help is to build the Institute by donating to the Mending Broken Hearts Appeal, or contact our Major Gifts team if you'd like to make a major donation to the Institute.  

Donate now