Although heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, there are now more than 5 million heart attack survivors in the country. Due to the amount of heart cells that are damaged during an attack and the resulting scar tissue that forms in the area, those hearts do not work as well as they once did. Scientists at Gladstone Institutes are working on coaxing those damaged cells into becoming healthy beating cells once more, possibly eliminating the scar tissue and making the heart as good as before the attack.
The scientists began their research last year, working with mice. They successfully took scar cells from live mice and transformed them back into healthy cells by injecting the damaged cells with a cocktail of three genes, referred to as GMT. However, when they began to work with human cells in a petri dish, the results were disappointing. It seemed that damaged human heart cells could not be fixed with just GMT, and required something more. The scientists carefully began to test the heart cells with a variety of genes and eventually discovered the magic combination. Once they added the genes ESRRG and MESP1 to the original GMT mix, the cells began to transform. They then added two more genes, MYOCD and ZFPM2, along with using a chemical reaction to urge things along with the transformation of the cells, and the results became even more successful with more damaged heart cells becoming healthy again.
During the study, nearly all the damaged heart cells transformed. About 20% of those cells began to transmit signals to become beating heart cells. This means that the scientists still need to get to the point where all damaged cells can do this, but the researchers believe that results could be more favorable by using a live heart in future experiments.
Next up for the research team is to continue to test this combination of genes in larger animals, particularly pigs. If that is successful, they plan to replace the gene mixture with smaller molecules to make injection easier and safer for future human patients.