Using light to help mend broken hearts

14 February 2015        

Professor Chris Denning looking down a microscope

Thanks to your support an exciting new project has launched at the University of Nottingham where researchers are investigating how light could be used to help mend broken hearts damaged by a heart attack.

The team hope to develop a technique to control the heartbeat by growing heart muscle cells that beat in response to light, which acts as a pacemaker. The project is being funded as part of our involvement in the British Council’s Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange partnership (BIRAX).

A major challenge

A major stumbling block in heart tissue engineering is that the grafted tissue might not always beat in sync with the rest of the heart. This would put already sick patients at greater risk. Professor Chris Denning at the University of Nottingham and Professor Lior Gepstein at the Israel Institute of Technology are growing heart muscle cells from stem cells which contain proteins sensitive to light, called rhodopsins. This should allow them to produce patches of muscle tissue which beat in response to a pacemaker that emits light.

The heart muscle cells will contain two types of rhodopsin – one which is stimulated by blue light that triggers electrical activity and one stimulated by yellow light to stop that electrical activity. This approach ensures that any light-emitting pacemaker will only work on the transplanted tissue containing the rhodopsins.

The researchers hope is that this light sensitive tissue can then be grafted on to a damaged heart, helping it beat more effectively to reduce the devastating effects of heart failure without the risk of heart rhythm problems.

Fixing the failing heart

Around 175,000 heart attacks are diagnosed in the UK each year. Research we funded has helped improve survival rates dramatically over the past 50 years so that around seven in ten people survive. But a heart attack can leave irreparable damage to the heart tissue. This damage can mean the heart is less able to pump blood around the body. This is called heart failure. It can be debilitating and affects hundreds of thousands of people in the UK.

The researchers, being funded by a £400,000 grant from us and BIRAX, will assess their tissue patches in rats and, if results are positive, in pigs before any trials in people can be carried out.

Professor Chris Denning at the University of Nottingham, who is leading the UK research, said:

“We’re delighted to receive this funding from the BHF and BIRAX. The grant ensures we can work on a very promising technique for solving one of the major challenges in regenerative medicine to mend a broken heart."

Bringing the best scientists together

Before the BIRAX scheme, collaboration between UK and Israel scientists had proved difficult despite the world class regenerative research happening in both countries. Professor Denning and Professor Gepstein had previously been competitors but this project will allow them to combine expertise and resources to accelerate developments in regenerative treatments for heart patients.

Our Medical Director, Professor Peter Weissberg, said:

“Cutting edge science is not a national enterprise. It is a global endeavour. While competition between labs can fuel progress, it is nowhere near as productive as bringing the world’s best scientists together to work towards a shared goal.

“The BIRAX initiative makes it possible for the BHF to fund top UK scientists, like Professor Denning, to work with their colleagues in Israel and help us reach our goal of finding new treatments for the millions around the world living with heart failure.”

We can only mend broken hearts with your support.