Scientists study early heart growth to help heart attack patients

11 January 2018        

Category: Research

Scientists at the University of Cambridge are to study how the heart grows at its earliest moments in an effort to help heart attack patients. 

Epicardial cells

Epicardial cells generated from human embryonic stem cells. The protein - ZO1 - can be seen in green at the peripheries of the cells.

Dr Sanjay Sinha has been awarded £183,000 by the BHF to identify different cells within the epicardium – the outer layer of the heart that plays an important role in the development of the heart and its response to injury (a heart attack). 

The cells have different levels of a variety of key proteins, such as TCF21 and WT1. These proteins  are believed to play a critical role by controlling the growth of cells which eventually form the connective tissues and blood vessels of the heart in an embryo. Dr Sinha will be studying the differences between the epicardial cells to see if some cells have better regenerative properties than others.

After a heart attack, damage to the heart muscle is irreversible as the heart does not repair itself or replace damaged tissue. This can lead heart failure, a condition where the heart is less able to pump blood around the body.

Unlike some fish and amphibians, humans are unable to replace or regenerate lost heart muscle. However, by determining how the epicardium controls heart cell growth in the embryo, Dr Sinha believes it might be possible to ‘switch on’ this ability in adults. 

Regenerating the heart

To study this possibility Dr Sinha and his team will study how the different cells within the epicardium influence the development of heart muscle, blood vessels and other type of cells. 

Dr Sanjay Sinha, Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, said: “In the womb, once the heart is fully formed the epicardium becomes dormant. However, recent evidence suggests that it partly reactivates after the heart is damaged. 

“This study will help us learn more about how the epicardium controls the development of the foetal heart. This may enable the design of new therapies that could turn on the heart’s original regenerative capacity in an adult.“

Dr Subreena Simrick, Senior Research Advisor at the BHF, said: “The heart is unable to repair itself after it is damaged by a heart attack, but this research is trying to identify a way to promote heart regeneration to repair damage that had once been thought permanent. 

“It’s only because of the generous donations of our supporters that we are able to fund research which could shape the life-changing treatments of the future.“