Turning back the clock for heart repair

Source: giphy https://gph.is/2cLvZi4

Swish, swish, swish, swish, swish…

The sound of a baby’s heartbeat from inside the womb is an iconic sign of life. Mums and dads to-be hear that amazing sound and know that there really is someone in there. But few people will spare a thought for the truly amazing developments that have created that tiny heart.

A baby’s heart develops muscle, chambers and blood flow, new blood vessels to feed that muscle and bigger vessels to fill the chambers and carry oxygen and nutrients around their little body after they are born. But it’s not long before the grown heart loses the ability to ‘create’ new muscle and blood vessels. The heart will grow bigger as the child grows up but, apart from a few minor finishing touches to the heart’s structure, that heart is fully formed.

The heart will be solely responsible for pumping blood around their body for the rest of their lives. But it’s not perfect. Things can go wrong and the heart can get damaged.

Heart and circulatory disease is still all too common and, in the UK, someone goes to hospital with a heart attack every 3 minutes. In fact, someone’s probably had a heart attack in the time it’s taken you to read this. And, although 7 out of 10 people now survive a heart attack, they will be left with a heart that was starved of oxygen and is now permanently damaged. Their heart simply cannot remember how to rebuild and repair.

Scientists led by Dr Nicola Smart at the University of Oxford, funded by the British Heart Foundation, have recently discovered that, after a heart attack, the heart does attempt to turn on the same pathways that allowed it to form in the first place. It just can’t do it enough to make a real difference.

By studying mouse hearts under a microscope and growing their heart cells in a dish, the team could actually see that the heart was able to form a small number of new blood vessels after a heart attack, in much the same way as they form in the heart of a baby in the womb.

New vessels could be seen forming when the hearts were studied under a microscope (left and middle). Remarkably, the vessels even grew in a petri dish (right), helping the scientists to see the regions of the heart that could give rise to new vessels.

In large part funded by the BHF, early heart development has been studied in quite a lot of detail and scientists know many of the proteins that stimulate the heart to form. Dr Smart’s team are now working to secure funding to use some of these stimulating proteins, and identify more powerful ones, to see if they can to reactivate this ‘young heart’ growth to repair hearts after a heart attack.

If they can do this, they could develop treatments that could give a damaged heart a second chance, limit the chances of someone developing heart failure and give someone their life back, one heartbeat at a time.

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