In a first, scientists have discovered a way to trigger damaged heart cells to heal themselves, an advance that may lead to ‘groundbreaking’ treatments for heart failure and other cardiac diseases. Researchers have identified a long non-coding ribonucleic acid (ncRNA) that regulates genes controlling the ability of heart cells to undergo repair or regeneration. This novel RNA, which researchers have named “Singheart,” may be targeted for treating heart failure in the future. Unlike most other cells in the human body, heart cells do not have the ability to self-repair or regenerate effectively, making heart attack and heart failure severe and debilitating. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death worldwide, with an estimated 17.7 million people dying from CVD in 2015. CVD also accounted for close to 30 per cent of all deaths in Singapore in 2015. Researchers from Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and the National University Health System (NUHS) used single cell technology to explore gene expression patterns in healthy and diseased hearts.
The team discovered that a unique subpopulation of heart cells in diseased hearts activate gene programmes related to heart cell division, uncovering the gene expression heterogeneity of diseased heart cells for the first time. In addition, they also found the “brakes” that prevent heart cells from dividing and thus self-healing. Targeting these “brakes” could help trigger the repair and regeneration of heart cells. “There has always been a suspicion that the heart holds the key to its own healing, regenerative and repair capability,” said Roger Foo, lead author of the study published in Nature Communications. “But that ability seems to become blocked as soon as the heart is past its developmental stage. Our findings point to this potential block that when lifted, may allow the heart to heal itself,” said Foo.
“In contrast to a skin wound where the scab falls off and new skin grows over, the heart lacks such a capability to self-heal, and suffers a permanent scar instead. If the heart can be motivated to heal like the skin, consequences of a heart attack would be banished forever,” said Foo.