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Solution proposed for ages-old heart mystery

26 Chwefror 2007

Research by a Cardiff team has opened up a new perspective on a long-standing mystery surrounding which cells survive and which ones die in the embryonic heart of an unborn child.

The breakthrough could have far-reaching consequences for understanding embryonic heart defects and finding treatments for heart disease in adults.

Normal heart formation depends on some embryonic heart cells dying in a precisely regulated fashion. This process is entirely normal and contributes to shaping the heart structure and its chambers.

The research, funded by the British Heart Foundation in the Department of Cardiology at Cardiff’s School of Medicine, has now discovered a possible molecular basis of this process. In work being published in Circulation Research, the team led by Professor Tony Lai found that distinct forms of a channel that enables the vital flow of calcium around heart cells appeared to be responsible for the different fates of cells. The presence of one type of channel was linked to the survival of heart cells, and the other to cell deaths.

The balance between these pro- and anti-survival channels has implications not only for embryonic heart development, but also for the 900,000 adults in the UK with heart failure, which has been linked to increased levels of cell death. The group also has evidence that similar processes may play a role in brain development and function, paving the way for future investigations into the signalling events involved in the formation of other tissues and organs in the human body.

Dr. Christopher George, a British Heart Foundation-funded lecturer based at the University’s Wales Heart Research Institute, said the new work shed new light on the mystery of how heart cells decode the complex signals that tell them to survive or die. He said, "This study has given us a real insight into what determines the survival instincts of cells within the embryonic heart. To finally shed some light on the calcium-dependent processes by which a heart cell survives or is marked for death during heart development is an exciting and important step forward in cardiac developmental biology."

Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said: "These findings from BHF research in Cardiff are fascinating. The discovery that different forms of the same calcium channel can have entirely opposite effects provides a potential avenue of research to protect the heart. In the long-term, this could have implications for future heart failure and heart attack therapies."

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