Mending broken hearts

Heart Image copyright SPL
Image caption 750,000 Britons are debilitated by heart disease

A fascinating paper in Nature this week shows how scientists at UCL's Institute of Child Health have succeeded in repairing damaged heart muscle cells in mice.

The research involved stimulating epicardium cells (which line the surface of the heart) to regress to something like their embryonic state, migrate to the point of injury, and reconstitute as fully functioning heart muscle.

You can read James Gallagher's report on the breakthrough here, but the research raises the astonishing prospect that we might, one day, teach the human heart to repair itself. A new golden age of regenerative medicine now seems tantalisingly close.

Even five years ago the heart was thought to have little or no regenerative potential, but speaking on the programme this morning the director of the British Heart Foundation, Professor Peter Weissberg, said a series of exciting developments in the field mean the textbooks are having to be re-written.

"The really exciting thing about this is that we have cells sitting in and around our hearts, lying dormant, but with the capacity to repair the heart if only they get the right molecular switches thrown."

Although treatments for heart disease have come a long way in the fifty years since the British Heart Foundation was established, options have been limited to palliative care with drugs, or the "nuclear option" of transplant surgery. Survival rates have improved, but that's left a growing pool of patients living with the debilitating consequences of heart disease - from 100,000 in 1961 to 750,000 today.

"We can make them feel a little better, we can make them live a little longer," says Dr Weissberg, but in effect "we're only prolonging the agony of a pretty miserable existence, not being able to breathe, not being able to exercise, and facing the risk of sudden death all the time".

It was partly to try to break this deadlock that the BHF decided to throw its weight behind regenerative medicine, launching a new fundraising campaign Mending a Broken Heart in January.

As we reported at the time, Professor Paul Riley's work at UCL was one of the first basic research projects to benefit from that switch in emphasis. It's early days, but it looks like that investment may be rewarded with a genuine advance in treatments for heart disease.

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