10:08am Saturday 19 October 2019

Zebrafish pinpoint the route to mending a broken heart

The research, which was carried out on zebrafish, brings researchers one step closer to being able to generate tissues to repair the human heart after damage inflicted by a heart attack.

The scientists, based at the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit (MHU) at the University of Oxford, have identified Fgf as the controlling factor over whether developing heart cells become muscle or blood vessels. They found that manipulating levels of the Fgf protein in zebrafish embryos could determine how many of each cell type was made.

Dr Filipa Simoes, from the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit and one of the first authors of the study, said:

“Our study shows how having the correct concentrations of Fgf in the developing zebrafish heart ensures that the different cell types form properly. Crucially, we were able to convert blood and blood vessel cells into heart muscle cells by flipping genetic switches controlled by Fgf. The important next step to this research will be to identify the relevant cells in the human heart and take this finding to the next level.”

Professor Roger Patient, who leads the research lab at the MRC Molecular Haematology Unit at the University of Oxford, said:

“If we can manipulate these heart cells in fish embryos, in the longer term we can look to try and do the same in human hearts – even adult hearts – if we can identify the equivalent cells. This could bring significant benefit to heart attack patients or people with heart defects. At the very least, our research will help the production of these cells in the laboratory for use in heart repair.

“Mending a damaged heart requires new muscle and the associated blood vessels, therefore there is great interest in identifying and manipulating cells that make both. The Medical Research Council recognises that supporting early stage studies in the lab like this is crucial in order to turn the potential of stem cells into effective treatments that can help patients recover from heart attacks.”

The researchers, who were also funded by the British Heart Foundation, propose that this finding in the fish has identified the cells which became responsible, over millions of years in evolution, for the increase in amount of cardiac muscle that enables the heart to grow in size from two chambers in zebrafish to four chambers in humans

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation which co-funded the study, said:

“This excellent study throws new light on how our four-chambered hearts evolved from the simpler structures we see in other animals.  The results significantly increase our understanding of the origins of stem cells found in the adult heart. This provides important clues to researchers working towards the goal of mending broken hearts after heart attack.”

The research is published today in the journal Development.



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Fgf differentially controls cross-antagonism between cardiac and haemangioblast regulators will be published online in the journal Development on 12 July 2011.

1. For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including one of the first antibiotics penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century. www.mrc.ac.uk

2. The British Heart Foundation is the nation’s heart charity, dedicated to saving lives through pioneering research, patient care, campaigning for change and by providing vital information. But we urgently need help. We rely on donations of time and money to continue our life-saving work. Because together we can beat heart disease. For more information visit bhf.org.uk/pressoffice


3. Oxford University’s Medical Sciences Division is recognized internationally for its outstanding research and teaching, attracting the brightest minds from all over the world. It is one of the largest biomedical research centres in Europe, with over 2,500 people involved in research and more than 2,800 students, and brings in around two-thirds of Oxford University’s external research income. Listed by itself, that would make it the fifth largest university in the UK in terms of research grants and contracts. Oxford is home to the UK’s top-ranked medical school, and partnerships with the local NHS Trusts enable patients to benefit from the close links between medical research and healthcare delivery. 14 winners of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine worked or were educated at Oxford, and the division is home to 29 Fellows of the Royal Society and 68 Fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences. The development of penicillin at Oxford ushered in the modern age of antibiotics, and the confirmation of the link between smoking and cancer has prevented many millions of deaths. Oxford continues to be at the forefront of medical research, whether it’s the genetic and molecular basis of disease, the latest advances in neuroscience, or clinical studies in cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Oxford has one of the largest clinical trial portfolios in the UK and great expertise in taking discoveries from the lab into the clinic. A major strength of Oxford medicine is its long-standing network of clinical research units in Asia and Africa, enabling world-leading research on the most pressing global health challenges such as malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS and flu. Oxford is also renowned for its large-scale studies into the causes and treatment of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other common conditions.

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