Researchers discover new way to regenerate hearts after a heart attack

20 May 2015        

Lymphatic vessels Paul Riley

Researchers at the University of Oxford, who are part-funded by us, have identified a new way to regenerate the heart after a heart attack bringing the UK’s half a million heart failure sufferers hope for a cure.

A heart attack can cause irreparable damage which can lead to heart failure – a progressive and sometimes terminal condition where your heart can’t pump blood around the body properly.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, show for the first time that the body’s lymphatic system – which is responsible for transporting white blood cells around the body to fight infection and injury – plays a vital role in helping the heart repair itself after a heart attack.

Repairing damaged hearts

The research, funded by the BHF, Wellcome Trust and Marie Curie Actions, showed in mice that adult hearts start growing more lymphatic vessels after a heart attack. The team believes the body does this to transport immune cells away from the heart muscle after it becomes damaged, to reduce the level of inflammation and help the heart repair itself.

Researchers found that stimulating further growth of these vessels using a protein called VEGF-C amplified this healing process, reduced the damage caused by a heart attack and helped significantly improve the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body.

The protein VEGF-C has already been studied in animals as a treatment for lymphoma – a type of cancer found in the lymphatic system.

Identifying new treatments

BHF Professor of Regenerative Medicine Paul Riley, who led the research, said: “We have shown that given the right stimulus after a heart attack there is a significant response from the lymphatic system which enhances the heart’s healing process and limits the damage left behind. This significantly improved the pumping function of the heart.

“This has never been documented before and the implications of these findings, in mice, could be huge. By unravelling the mystery of how the lymphatic system develops and its role in heart repair we hope to find new ways to reduce the devastating impact of a heart attack.”

The findings also challenge a 100-year-old dogma surrounding the origin of lymphatic vessels. Previous research, dating back to 1902, suggested all lymphatic vessels sprout from existing veins, whereas Professor Riley’s team has revealed a new source. They discovered that specialist cells, which we know are essential for the growth of early blood vessels in the developing embryo, also contribute to new lymphatic vessels in the heart.

Our Medical Director, Professor Peter Weissberg, said: “Relatively little is known about the role of the lymphatic system in the heart. This research has shed new light on how lymphatic vessels develop and shows for the first time that they may play a significant role in the heart’s response to injury after a heart attack.

“This opens up new opportunities to identify treatments that might, in the future, help to limit the damage caused by a heart attack. It’s only by funding important research such as this that we can hope to one day end heart failure.”

Help fund future breakthroughs

This research was funded by our Mending Broken Hearts Appeal which offers over half a million people in the UK living with heart failure hope for a cure. Stem cell treatments to regenerate the heart have so far shown limited success in improving heart function in clinical trials. We are funding laboratory research through the Appeal to understand the fundamental biology of heart repair so that there is a much better chance of success in future clinical trials.

We urgently need to raise £10million to fund a new cutting-edge research facility for regenerative medicine at the University of Oxford. The Institute of Developmental and Regenerative Medicine (IDRM) will be co-led by Professor Riley who has already made ground-breaking discoveries towards one day teaching damaged hearts to repair themselves.