Researchers discover key to heart regeneration

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A team of international researchers, led by experts from the University of Bologna and the IRCCS—Policlinico Sant’Orsola Hospital, has made an exciting discovery about heart regeneration.

They have found a key growth factor that can help heart muscle cells grow and repair themselves.

This discovery, published in the journal Cell Reports, could lead to new treatments for damaged hearts.

Heart damage can occur from heart attacks, infections, or certain cancer treatments. When the heart gets injured, it loses many muscle cells, which are replaced by scar tissue.

This scar tissue can’t pump blood like healthy muscle, often leading to heart failure. Unlike some animals that can naturally repair their hearts, humans have very limited heart regeneration abilities, especially after birth.

Before birth, mammals (including humans) can regenerate their hearts, even after severe damage. However, once they are born, heart muscle cells, called cardiomyocytes, specialize to work outside the womb and lose their ability to regenerate.

Scientists have been searching for ways to make these cells regain their regenerative abilities to help treat heart damage.

Researchers suspected that the heart’s loss of regenerative power after birth might be due to a decrease in certain growth factors. Growth factors are natural substances that stimulate cell growth.

Professor Gabriele Matteo D’Uva from the University of Bologna, who led the study, explained that they found various growth factors in the heart decrease rapidly after birth, along with the heart’s ability to regenerate.

Through their research, they identified a particular growth factor called BMP7 (Bone Morphogenetic Protein 7) that plays a significant role in promoting the growth of heart muscle cells in newborns.

Chiara Bongiovanni, a Ph.D. student at the University of Bologna and the first author of the study, noted that BMP7 showed the most promise in helping heart muscle cells grow during the neonatal stage.

To confirm their findings, researchers looked at zebrafish, a type of fish known for its natural ability to heal its heart.

When they blocked BMP7 in zebrafish, heart regeneration slowed down. When they increased BMP7, the heart healed faster. This confirmed BMP7’s important role in heart regeneration.

Next, the team tested BMP7 on mice, a common model for human biology. They found that BMP7 could stimulate heart muscle cell growth even in adult mice. This effect was even stronger after a heart attack, suggesting that BMP7 could help repair damaged hearts at later stages of life.

These findings suggest that BMP7 could become a new treatment to help hearts heal. If further studies in humans confirm these results, it could greatly impact the treatment of heart disease, which is a leading cause of illness and death worldwide.

The research team is now exploring combinations of BMP7 with other treatments to develop even more effective heart regeneration therapies. This exciting discovery brings hope for new ways to treat heart damage and improve the lives of millions of people affected by heart disease.

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