How a remarkable fish could help us mend broken hearts

The blind cavefish: Unravelling the mechanisms underlying heart regeneration

Mathilda Mommersteeg (lead researcher)

Oxford, University of

Start date: 01 July 2016 (Duration 3 years)

Dr Mathilda Mommersteeg and her colleagues at the University of Oxford are studying an unusual fish in the hope it may reveal clues to repairing heart muscle damaged by a heart attack.

Astyanax mexicanus is an extraordinary species of fish living in rivers and caves in Mexico. The fish living in rivers can quickly repair its heart after damage. Over a million years ago, some of the river fish started living in caves. In the darkness of the caves, they went blind and lost all their pigment. Along with their eye sight, they also lost the ability for heart repair and, similar to humans, if their heart is damaged they cannot repair it and the tissue is replaced by a permanent scar. Comparing the heart and DNA of the river fish and the blind cavefish could tell us what special mechanisms are required for heart repair.

Dr Mommersteeg has already found that the ability of the river fish to regenerate its heart is linked to a small number of genes that are involved in cardiac metabolism – the process the heart uses to produce energy from food. In this project, Dr Mommersteeg will investigate these results further and will continue her comparison of the DNA of the river fish and the cavefish. When she finds differences in the DNA, she will study what biological processes are affected by these differences. In this way she hopes to work out the molecular mechanisms required for heart repair that the river fish have kept, and the cavefish have lost.

This research may help explain why some fish can repair their hearts after damage, whereas humans can’t, and may reveal new ways to promote heart repair in people.

Project details

Grant amount £256,134
Grant type Project Grant
Start Date 01 July 2016
Duration 3 years
Reference PG/15/111/31939
Status In progress

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