How Nobel Prize winners changed regenerative medicine

6 October 2015        

Heart muscle cells The 2015 Nobel Prizes are announced this week. Every day Christie Norris from our Research Communications team will look at how the work of previous Nobel Prize winners has influenced our research. Today she looks at the regenerative heart.

Building on the work of the 2012 Nobel Prize winners, we support innovative research exploring stem cells as a potential treatment for conditions such as a heart attack or heart failure. 

A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is restricted, starving the heart of oxygen, which can kill heart muscle cells. Most heart attacks are a result of coronary heart disease, which is the narrowing or blockage of vessels which supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood. The longer blood flow is restricted to the heart, the larger the area of heart muscle that dies.  

Heart failure means the heart is too weak to pump enough blood around the body. This means organs and tissues do not receive enough oxygen. Once it begins to fail, the heart will find it more and more difficult to function properly. Heart failure can occur as a result of many causes including heart attacks, if the damage to the heart is severe.

The research of the 2012 Nobel Prize winners has helped us explore new and exciting ways of treating cardiovascular diseases.

Pluripotent stem cells 

Professor Sir John Gurdon and Professor Shinya Yamanaka were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the ‘discovery that mature cells in the body can be reprogrammed’ to pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent means the stem cell can become all cell types found in the body. 

At present, there is no cure for repairing damaged hearts. Thanks to the pioneering work of Sir Gurdon and Yamanaka, the use of stem cells is a hot topic of our research. Can we manipulate our own cells to help us when we need it? Our scientists are exploring whether heart muscle cells can be regenerated using the body’s own store of stem cells following damage. 

Using our own cells to mend our hearts

Our Mending Broken Hearts Appeal is a campaign which helps fund research into the field of regenerative medicine. Since the campaign’s launch, we have successfully raised over £10m, which has helped fund three pioneering Centres of Regenerative Medicine in major UK universities. 

As part of the Mending Broken Hearts Appeal, BHF Professor Michael Schneider and his team at Imperial College London are looking at signals which could help dormant stem cells in the heart become new muscle cells.  

BHF Professor Paul Riley and his team at the University of Oxford have shown that a key protein called thymosin β4 (tβ4) can help stimulate certain human heart cells to turn into new heart muscle. With new muscle cells, the heart can pump more strongly. When asked about his work, Professor Riley said “My vision is a world where heart damage is temporary and repairable. Our research discoveries could trigger a revolution in cardiovascular medicine.”

The discovery of stem cells with the most potential

A recent publication in Nature Communications describes the research of Professor Schneider and Dr Michela Noseda. They have found a particular stem cell in mice that could have great regenerative potential in the heart. Their study showed that mice treated with this stem cell could repair a significant amount of damaged heart muscle after just twelve weeks. They now hope to find a similar cell in human hearts. 

The discovery of reprogramming mature cells to become stem cells has inspired our researchers to explore the ability of the human heart to fix itself after injury. The world of stem cell research is an exciting one and we look forward to what our scientists have in store.   

Our research could help treat people like Richard.

Help us to continue funding research in the field of heart regeneration.