Scientists at the Victor Chang Institute of Cardiac Research in Sydney have discovered a new critical gene that he hopes could help human hearts repair damaged heart muscle after a heart attack.
Researchers have identified a genetic switch in zebrafish that involves cells allowing them to divide and multiply after a heart attack, resulting in complete regeneration and healing of damaged heart muscle in these fish.
It is already known that zebras can heal their own hearts, but how they performed this amazing feat has remained unknown to this day. In a study recently published in a prestigious journal, Science, a team from the Institute investigated a critical gene known as Klf1 that was previously identified only in red blood cells. For the first time, they discovered that it plays a vital role in healing damaged hearts.
Dr. Kazu Kikuchi, who led this first study in the world, said he was stunned by the findings.
“Our research has identified a secret switch that allows heart muscle cells to divide and multiply after the heart is injured. It starts when needed and shuts off when the heart is completely healed. In people whose damaged and scarred heart muscle cannot replace themselves, this could change the game, ”explains Dr. Kikuchi.
“With these little fish sharing over 70% of human genes, this can really save many, many lives and lead to new drug developments.”
The gene works by making the remaining uninjured heart muscle cells more immature and altering their metabolic wiring. This allows them to divide and create new cells.
When the gene was removed, the heart of the zebrafish lost its ability to repair after an injury like a heart attack, making it a key tool for self-healing.
Professor Bob Graham, head of the Institute’s Department of Molecular Cardiology and Biophysics, says they hope to use this world’s first discovery, made in collaboration with the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, to transform the treatment of patients with heart attack and other heart diseases.
“The team was able to find this vital protein that goes into action after an event like a heart attack and compensates the cells to heal the damaged heart muscle. It is an incredible discovery “, says prof. Graham.
“The gene can also act as a switch in human hearts. We now hope that further research into its function will provide us with a clue to turn on regeneration in human hearts and improve their ability to pump blood throughout the body. “
Importantly, the team also found that the Klf1 gene did not play any role in early heart development and that its regenerative properties were included only after heart injury.
Professor Graham added: “This is clear evidence that the regeneration you get after a heart injury is not the same as what happens during heart development, but involves a completely different pathway; an issue that has been debated for years. “
Reference: April 8, 2021, Science.
After eight fruitful years, dr. Kikuchi left the Australian Institute in 2019 to continue his work in his homeland, Japan. But he continues to work closely with the Victor Chang Heart Research Institute to jointly advance the zebrafish heart project to the next phase.