Heart repair with stem cells
Just imagine having no heart. That was the fate of the poor 'Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz'. His namesake - the 'tinman gene' - plays a key role in the development of the heart. Patients with a mutation in this vital piece of genetic material suffer cardiac defects and arrhythmia. Why is research into the formation of the heart so important to the treatment of its failure? After a heart attack, coronary arteries are blocked, which causes part of the heart to die, creates scar tissue and adversely affects the organ’s ability to pump blood. It is currently impossible to restore a heart that has been damaged to this extent. The AMC-led ‘HeartRepair’ European Research Project is looking to change that by using stem cells to convert connective tissue cells in the heart into cardiac muscle cells. This would be a major breakthrough.

Banishing heart failure
It is even better, of course, to stop heart failure occurring in the first place by preventing atherosclerosis. The cholesterol-reducing statins used to that end are often insufficiently effective, so researchers at AMC are increasingly concentrating on raising patients’ cholesterol levels – that is, raising their levels of ‘good’ cholesterol, namely high-density lipoprotein (HDL). There remains one major practical problem, however, HDL cannot be administered as a medicine. The search is now on for ways to boost the human body’s own production of the substance. At the same time, researchers are trying to inhibit inflammatory reactions through immune modulators. This is an important line of research for new therapies, since it seems increasingly likely that atherosclerosis begins as an acute inflammatory reaction.