Humans could eventually be able to regenerate the heart, according to a new study.
A University of Florida scientist and colleagues discovered genes known to form hearts cells in humans and other animals in the gut of a muscle-less and heartless sea anemone. The team reported their findings in a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The findings point to potential for tweaking communication between human genes and advancing the ability to treat heart conditions and stimulate regenerative healing, said University of Florida professor Mark Martindale, who led the study.
“Our study shows that if we learn more about the logic of how genes that give rise to heart cells talk to each other, muscle regeneration in humans might be possible,” Martindale said.
In vertebrates and flies, heart genes generate what engineers calls lockdown loops, which means that once the genes are turned on, they tell each other to stay on in an animal’s cells for its entire lifetime. Animals with a lockdown on their genes cannot grow new heart parts or use those cells for other functions.
“This ensures that heart cells always stay heart cells and cannot become any other type of cell,” Martindale said.
But the lockdown loops don’t exist in in sea anemone embryos. This finding suggests a mechanism for why the gut cells expressing heart genes in sea anemones can turn into other kinds of cells, such as those needed to regenerate damaged body parts.
The study supports the idea that definitive muscle cells found in the majority of animals arose from a bifunctional gut tissue that had both absorptive and contractile properties. And while the gut tissue of a sea anemone might not look like a beating heart, it does undergo slow, rhythmic peristaltic waves of contraction, much like the human digestive system.
The first animal muscle cells might have been very heart-like, Martindale said. “The idea is these genes have been around a long time and preceded the twitchy muscles that cover our skeleton.”
Continued research could one day allow scientists to coax muscles cells into regenerating different kinds of new cells, including more heart cells, Martindale added.
Source: University of Florida