Vital cells in our heart muscle can die when starved of oxygen in a heart attack, or when stressed by increased work load, and heart failure can develop if the sudden or accumulated damage is bad enough.
At present nothing can be done to repair the damage and the outlook for the hundreds of thousands of people living in the UK with heart failure is poor.
BHF Professor Michael Schneider and his research team at Imperial are exploring ways to change that. They want to know what changes in the heart muscle cells drive them to die, and find out if much-anticipated stem cell therapies are able to repair the damage.
Professor Schneider's work with stem cells is a vital part of our Mending Broken Hearts campaign. We want to spend £50 million to help people with heart failure following a heart attack. BHF Ambassador Dame Esther Rantzen visited Professor Schneider's research laboratory to learn about his work - she sadly lost her husband to heart disease.
What happens when heart muscle cells die?
Professor Schneider heads the Centre of Research Excellence at Imperial College London, where his team are investigating the differences between healthy and diseased heart muscle cells, to find out which parts of the cells are switched on or off when they are damaged.
The team were among the first to show that several genes involved in ‘apoptosis’ - a process where unwanted cells are programmed to destroy themselves – may also prevent heart muscle cells from degenerating.
They are now looking for more ways protect our hearts, including drugs to prevent cells dying. This research may point to ways of preventing damage, or new avenues for therapy.
Can stem cells repair damaged heart tissue?
Stem cells can turn into any of the body’s cell types depending on the biological ‘instructions’ they receive, but they rarely become heart muscle cells. As part of the London BHF Centre of Regenerative Medicine Professor Schneider is defining the steps and signals that stem cells need to create new heart muscle more efficiently.
Professor Schneider has also discovered a new type of cell within the heart itself that can create new heart muscle in mice. He will use state-of-the-art technologies to investigate these cells and find out if their human counterpart might be the key to cardiac repair in human heart disease.