Discovery Expected to Advance Heart Tissue Regeneration

Researchers at the University of Houston have made a discovery that is expected to improve techniques for heart tissue regeneration. Cardiovascular diseases rank as the leading cause of death in the US largely because human heart tissue cannot effectively repair itself.

What the Houston researchers have discovered are regulators that are key to heart tissue formation. These regulators are a small RNA species known as microRNAs and act early in a multistep heart formation process. Once thought to be genetic junk, microRNAs are now understood to be a major factor in gene regulation.

The team of researchers was able to track the process of heart muscle cell formation in a dish. Their work involved several screening steps. Most importantly, they first identified approximately 140 microRNAs in the earliest ancestor cells of the heart. Next, they screened for the ones that function in driving heart muscle cell formation, and the miR-322/503 cluster emerged as the top finding in both screenings and laid the basis for their work.

Building on existing technology

The researchers are hoping their work will contribute to the findings of Robert Schwartz, a professor of biochemistry and lead author of the study. His previous work developed a technique that converts human fibroblasts into cardiomyocytes. The expectation is that the microRNA regulators could improve the current process either alone or in combination with existing agents.  

Schwartz is working with NASA’s Center for the Advancement of Science in Space to understand how the environment of space can be useful in creating heart muscle cells from fibroblasts. The microRNAs will add new areas of inquiry to his work with NASA.

For more details, see the researchers’ news release