Mini lab-grown human hearts could hold cure for heart disease

Tiny hearts that are only one millimetre in diameter could hold the key to curing heart disease.

The  hearts, created by scientists at Abertay University, are being used to test treatments for heart hypertrophy, providing new insights on how to combat the disease.

Hypertrophy is the number one cause of sudden death in young people. It can be a hereditary condition, but can also be induced by other diseases like diabetes, or even simply by too much physically demanding exercise.

To develop different treatments, Professor Nikolai Zhelev and his team of scientists from the Scottish university grow the healthy hearts from stem cells.

Next, they chemically create the conditions that trigger hypertrophy. While hearts have been grown in this way in the past, this research marks the first time that scientists have been able to cause disease in them.

As the heart becomes hypertrophic, its cells begin to grow abnormally, enlarging them to the point where the heart can no longer function.

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Biosensors track the paths of the molecules within the tiny hearts so that Professor Zhelev can see which ones cause hypertrophic conditions.

Then, he is able to tailor drugs to the specific molecules so that they do follow these same paths, effectively stopping the hypertrophy before it begins.

Professor Zhelev is testing many different drugs with varying levels of success.

Interestingly, a drug originally developed to treat cancer is also having positive results on these miniature hypertrophic hearts.

A number of compounds are still being developed, and those that are most effective will go through even more tests before human patients trial them.

To understand the effects of these drugs more quickly, Professor Zhelev has partnered with Professor Jim Bown, a systems biologist who employs computer modelling and gaming technology in mapping cells.

Professor Bown said the relationship between the hands-on experimentation and computer modelling as a joint effort: “The way this will work is by taking information about how the cells grow from Nikolai initially, building models based on that data and making suggestions to him about which experiments to try out next.”

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Thus, researchers can perform fewer physical experiments and still collect data-rich results.

Groundbreaking both for the method of testing these tiny hearts and for the combination of technologies, these promising techniques could someday be used to develop cures for other diseases, too.

Professor Bown has already presented research showing potential for applications in treating cancer, and further research will continue to shed light on how these innovations can both prevent and cure.


Images courtesy of Abertay University


Without action, Europe in the 2080s will see major life loss and damage due to climate change

Unmitigated climate change would cost the European Union €190bn, cause 200,000 deaths and result in severe flooding and forest fires, according to a report out today.

The report, which has been made scientists from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, quantifies the effects of climate change if the worldwide average temperature increases by 3.5°C, a scenario that is expected to occur in the 2080s if action is not taken to reduce emissions.

The scientists looked at multiple facets of the continent’s weather system and economy in an attempt to get a clear picture of the likely effects.  They selected nine sectors to focus on: coasts, energy, tourism, droughts, river floods, forest fires, agriculture, human health and transport infrastructure.

Increased temperatures would lead to 200,000 heat-related deaths, and flood damage from rivers bursting their banks would pass €10bn. Forest fires could also destroy 8,000km² of southern Europe’s trees, and coastal damage could triple as a result of sea level rises.

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Among the findings was the startling realisation that damage to the continent would not be evenly split, but instead would be far more severe in the regions classed as southern Europe, which includes Spain, Italy and Greece,  and central Europe South, which includes France, Austria and Czech Republic.

These regions would see 70% of climate change-related damages, while northern Europe, which includes Sweden, Findland and Latvia, would experience only 1%.

The UK and Ireland would experience just 5% of damage, while the central Europe North region, which includes Netherlands, Germany and Poland, would see the remaining 24%.

This could lead have an impact on how power is distributed in the region, with the more-or-less unaffected northern section put in a stronger bargaining position within the European Union, and potentially serve to lessen the economic dominance of countries such as Germany.

However, the report warned that the Union’s integrated nature would mean all member states would see an impact.

Writing in a press release, the Commission warned that: “The welfare loss due to sea level rise in the central Europe North region or to the agricultural losses in southern Europe would have a spill over effect on the whole Europe due to economic interlinkages.”

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However, the report also found that if the temperature rises could be maintained the damage would be lessened.

If temperatures were kept below 2°C, the damage could cost 30% less – €60bn, leading to calls for increased action on the issue.

“No action is clearly the most expensive solution of all. Why pay for the damages when we can invest in reducing our climate impacts and becoming a competitive low-carbon economy?” asked Connie Hedegaard, European commissioner for climate action.

“Taking action and taking a decision on the 2030 climate and energy framework in October, will bring us just there and make Europe ready for the fight against climate change.”


Image one courtesy of WinkyInTheUK via Flickr/Creative Commons Licence 

Image two courtesy of Sammy via Flickr/Creative Commons Licence