Many parts of the body, such as blood cells and the lining of the stomach, are capable of renewing themselves throughout life. The heart is not. Because of its inability to repair itself, damaged caused by a heart attack causes permanent scarring that frequently results in weakening of the heart and subsequent heart failure.
Now a drug designed to treat cancer patients is showing signs that it could be used to regenerate damaged heart muscle and help prevent congestive heart failure.
Dr. Lawrence Lum, Associate Professor of Cell Biology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, has been working on cancer drugs that target Wnt signaling molecules. These molecules are critical for tissue regeneration, but also frequently contribute to cancer. In testing, they noted a curiosity.
“We saw many predictable adverse effects in bone and hair, for example, but one surprise was that the number of dividing [heart muscle cells] was slightly increased,” said Dr. Lum. “In addition to the intense interest in [this type of drug] as anticancer agents, this research shows that such agents could be useful in regenerative medicine.”
Based on their initial results, they induced heart attacks in mice and then treated them with the drug. Thei hearts’ ability to pump blood improved by nearly twofold compared to untreated animals. And in addition to the improved pumping ability, the researchers noticed a reduction in scarring in the hearts. This type of scarring can cause the heart to inappropriately increase and size and lead to heart failure.
“We hope to advance [this treatment] into clinical testing as a regenerative agent for heart disease within the next year,” said Dr. Lum.