LONDON: A new way to mend damage to the heart has been found by scientists.
The boffins have devised a method to coax heart muscle cells into re-entering the cell cycle, allowing the differentiated adult cells to divide and regenerate healthy heart tissue after a heart attack, according to studies in mice and rats by Children's Hospital Boston reported in the July 24th issue of the journal Cell.
If the same mechanisms identified by the researchers can be shown to work in the human heart, it opens up real possibilities for new and more efficient ways to treat people with heart disease, reports The BBC.
Theoretically, it could be used to treat heart attack patients, those with heart failure and children with congenital heart defects.
The key ingredient is a growth factor known as neuregulin1 (NRG1).
Previously, it was believed that the heart was incapable of repairing itself. During prenatal development, heart muscle cells (cardiomyocytes) proliferate but were thought to lose that ability shortly after birth. But, recent research has indicated that the adult cells do have some ability to replace themselves at a low level.
And, the new study provides evidence that this is true - and that NRG1 can ramp up the process significantly.
The Boston team tested the ability of various molecules to spur cell division in cultured cardiomyocytes, including several factors known to drive proliferation of the cells during prenatal development. NRG1 produced the most significant effect, and it was repeated when the factor was injected into adult mice.
When administered to animals who had suffered a heart attack, it promoted regeneration of heart muscle, and improved the overall function of the organ.
Writing in the journal, they said: "We have identified the major elements of a new approach to promote myocardial regeneration.
"Many efforts and important advances have been made toward the goal of developing stem-cell based strategies to regenerate damaged tissues in the heart as well as in other organs.
"The work presented here suggests that stimulating differentiated cardiomyocytes to proliferate may be a viable alternative."
Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said: "This fascinating study shows, remarkably, that a significant fraction of adult heart cells in mice can be made to replicate and help to repair damaged hearts.
"If the same mechanisms identified by the researchers can be shown to work in the human heart, it opens up real possibilities for new and more efficient ways to treat people with heart disease."