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.
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