New research could advance treatments for people living with damaged hearts

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By The British Heart Foundation

Scientists could find a way to rebuild damaged hearts, thanks to new research we have funded.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have discovered that using stem cells to make new heart tissue has the potential to regenerate injured hearts and treat heart failure.

Although the approach is promising, they have so far faced challenges, as heart muscle generated from stem cells and transplanted into the heart often fails to develop properly and survive.

But following years of research, the team have discovered that the muscle cells made from stem cells develop best when they closely interact with another heart tissue type, called epicardium. In rats, they saw that the muscle cells survive and repair heart damage better if epicardium grown from stem cells is also added at the time of tissue transplant.

Better treatments

Now we’re giving the the team a senior clinical research fellowship grant of £930,000, to investigate why epicardium benefits heart regeneration in this way. The grant will allow the team to carry out several experiments in the laboratory involving human embryonic stem cells and rats in order to study the beneficial effects of epicardium on the heart.

The findings could eventually lead to better treatments for people who have heart failure.

Heart failure is a long-term condition that occurs when the heart is unable to pump blood around the body as effectively as it should. It is often caused by the death of parts of the heart muscle following a heart attack and is estimated that as many as 920,000 people are living with the condition in the UK.

The main symptoms of heart failure include shortness of breath and feeling unusually tired or weak. Patients are also likely to develop swollen feet, ankles and stomach, along with swelling around the lower back area. For people with severe heart failure, everyday tasks like going upstairs or walking to the shops become impossible.

David Burnet (67), from Cherry Hinton, suffered a heart attack in 2011 which caused long-term damage to his heart. He is now living with heart failure and requires 10 tablets a day to control his symptoms.

He said: “I initially went to the doctors with what I thought was a heavy chest infection. It was only after an electrocardiogram (ECG) test, which measured the rhythm and electrical activity of my heart, that it was confirmed I’d had a heart attack.

“It was a shock for me, because I’ve always been active and mobile. I needed a quadruple heart bypass and was later referred to cardiac rehabilitation.

“Since then, I’ve responded well to my medication and my symptoms have been controlled. I’ve had to make lifestyle changes, such as monitoring what I eat and drink. However, now that I am taking suitable medication, I no longer find simple walking the challenge that it was and have full mobility. I am keeping active and continuing to live life to the full.

“I’m really pleased that more research is being funded by the BHF to try and cure heart failure and hopefully this will benefit people like me in the future.”

Sophisticated experiments in the lab

The new research is being led by Dr Sanjay Sinha, BHF Senior Clinical Research Fellow and Honorary Consultant in Cardiology at the University of Cambridge. The project is underway and is expected to last five years.

Dr Sinha said: “There are currently no cures for heart failure and those who live with it have a shortened life-span and find their daily lives severely limited.

“Our research is aiming to find new treatments, but although we have discovered that epicardium is beneficial for heart regeneration, we currently don’t know why this is the case.

“Our latest research will allow us to carry out sophisticated experiments in the lab, which could ultimately determine why this particular tissue benefits heart regeneration. Once we know the answer, we can then advance this approach for people living with heart failure.”

Vital step in finding effective therapy

Dr Noel Faherty, Senior Research Advisor at the BHF, added: “Heart failure is a condition that impacts hundreds of thousands of people in the UK, so we urgently need to find new therapies that can rebuild damaged hearts.

“This essential research, using stem cells, could provide a vital step in finding an effective therapy for this life-limiting condition. There is still so much we don’t know about stem cells, so research like this is crucial to advance our knowledge and make lifesaving treatments a reality.

“Research like this has only been made possible by the generous funding of the public and their support to drive forward our mission to beat heartbreak forever.”

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