Singapore scientists discover way to ‘self-repair’ damaged heart cells

A new discovery has been made in Singapore which could possibly lead to heart failure and heart attack patients ‘self-repairing’ damaged heart cells. The discovery could lead to ground breaking forms of treatment for heart diseases.

Singapore scientists discover way to ‘self-repair’ damaged heart cells
Singapore scientists have discovered way to ‘self-repair’ damaged heart cells. Photo courtesy: loweringrisk

For the first time, researchers have identified a long non-coding ribonucleic acid (ncRNA) that regulates genes controlling the ability of heart cells to undergo repair or regeneration. This novel RNA, which researchers have named 'Singheart', may be targeted for treating heart failure in the future.

This discovery has been made jointly by A*STAR's Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and the National University Health System (NUHS). The discovery has been published in scientific journal Nature Communications.

Unlike most other cells in the human body, heart cells do not have the ability to self-repair or regenerate effectively, making heart attack and heart failure severe and debilitating. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death worldwide, with an estimated 17.7 million people dying from CVD in 2015. CVD also accounted for close to 30 per cent of all deaths in Singapore in 2015.

Scientists have discovered that the ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecule — ‘Singheart’ — is found in larger amounts in the heart cells of patients with heart diseases. This single-stranded equivalent of DNA prevents heart cells from dividing, and hence self-healing.

Scientists of Singapore found out that the Singheart RNA, could be ‘neutralised’ by injecting viruses carrying artificial and complementary molecules into heart cells, hence enabling heart cells to regenerate themselves and self-heal.

A mouse heart cell with 2 nuclei (blue) and Singheart RNA labelled by red fluorescent  dyes.
A mouse heart cell with 2 nuclei (blue) and Singheart RNA labelled by red fluorescent dyes. Photo courtesy:GIS

The team conducted tests on adult mice, in which heart attacks were induced before they were injected with complementary molecules. After four weeks, they discovered that the mice’s hearts had fully recovered. The Singapore team is planning on conducting human trials within the next five years and hopes its research can benefit hospitals and clinics across the world.

Explaining the research, Associate Professor, Roger Foo said, “There has always been a suspicion that the heart holds the key to its own healing, regenerative and repair capability. But that ability seems to become blocked as soon as the heart is past its developmental stage. Our findings point to this potential block that when lifted, may allow the heart to heal itself.”

He added, “In contrast to a skin wound where the scab falls off and new skin grows over, the heart lacks such a capability to self-heal, and suffers a permanent scar instead. If the heart can be motivated to heal like the skin, consequences of a heart attack would be banished forever.

Foo is the study's lead author, and is Principal Investigator at both GIS and NUHS' Cardiovascular Research Institute (CVRI) and Senior Consultant at the National University Heart Centre, Singapore (NUHCS).