Research into how the heart communicates is yielding some fascinating insights. A recent study with mice has shown that the heart’s cells receive signals from the nervous system, but then the heart initiates its own way of passing on signals to other heart cells. The results could lead to novel ways to study the mechanisms of heart failure – where the system that speeds up and slows down the heart gets out of whack and results in the heart’s being unable to pump enough blood to the muscles.
What heart cells use to send messages to other heart cells is the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh). The study used mice whose heart cells only had been engineered not to release ACh. Their heart rates remained normal at rest but went much higher than usual rates during exercise and their hearts took much longer to return to normal after exercise. “The results suggest the heart cell derived ACh may boost parasympathetic signaling to counterbalance sympathetic activity.”
The researcher thinks this heart-critical non-neuronal source of ACh might also play a role in other organs. This study was supported by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
I’m excited to report news involving three of my favorite topics: nanotechnology, stem cells, and fixing hearts. Past efforts using stem cells to treat heart attacks and heart failure haven’t been very successful. And the worst part is, they don’t know why. Apparently they inject the stem cells into a patient but then don’t know where they end up. Do they stay in the targeted part of the heart or wander off somewhere else? If the treatment doesn’t work, up til now there’s been no way to determine why not. Now if only they could tell where the stem cells go and what they do…
Enter this new visualizing technique. Doctors at Stanford University School of Medicine have designed a way to use nanotechnology to track stem cells after they’ve been introduced into a patient’s body. The thought is that once they know where the stem cells have gone, they’ll be able to see more clearly what’s happening with them. The tracking technique, which also allows doctors to guide the stem cells more precisely to their intended location, involves marking the stem cells with nanoparticles and a gadolinium-laced contrast agent and following them with standard ultrasounds (Yay, non-invasive!) as they enter the body and move around. The hope is the docs’ll be able to see exactly where the stem cells take up residence and watch what they do. Do they stay in the targeted area or do they diffuse away from the heart? Do they develop into the desired cells or into something else entirely?
I know that gadolinium as a contrast agent ingredient is known to cause people who have kidney problems to develop a terrible and disfiguring disease known as Nephrogenic Systemic Fibrosis. It’s certainly good to hear that the substance can also be used in this new way to potentially help people with serious heart issues.
Unfortunately, this exciting discovery has at least three more years before it can be used in humans. But as with all life-limiting conditions, those of us who live with them are always looking for reasons to hope.
stem cells after heart attacks. Healthy donors’ cells seem to work better than using the patient’s own compromised stem cells. Makes sense—if the heart is damaged, doesn’t seem right that cells from it would be okay. But of course it only looks obvious once we’ve actually learned it.
Fighting infection by controlling production of nitric oxide (NO). Silicate powder interacts with light to release NO and kill gram-negative bacteria without harming the host. Another useful partner for NO—and another good reason to get out and enjoy the sun.
Saving lives by preventing organ fibrosis (scarring). Peptide from collagen has prevented scarring in human skin samples and in lungs and skin of mice. It even reversed fibrosis that had already begun in mouse lungs. Wonder if they’ll ever be able to use it for COPD and emphysema victims.
Minimizing damage to healthy tissue by using nano-constructed cages for targeting and delivering drugs to specific cells. They’ve got the concept but need to work on the execution—e.g., controlling the porosity of the cage so the loaded drug doesn’t leak out before it reaches its target.
So much promise. My imagination goes wild with visions of a world with so much less suffering.
Most deaths from cancer come after the primary tumor has been treated—usually with some combination of surgery and chemo or radiation—when stray cancer cells from the tumor escape and spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).
Since not all cells from cancer tumors behave the same way or have the same DNA, researchers have been looking for a way to study single cells. The problem was separating them. Now this new nanoparticle approach uses magnets to detect whether cells are growing, dividing or dying. It spins the cells in a magnetic field where each type rotates at a different speed. Larger, dying or dividing cells rotate more slowly and in specific patterns. so they can be separated into a group of single cells. Thus the researcher can focus on investigating the behavior of those particular cells.
One of the big promises of this approach is that scientists may now be able to test drugs on just the cells themselves instead of on the entire human organism—thus avoiding some of the worst side effects for patients. And, instead of throwing everything they have at the patient in hopes of affecting the disease, doctors can work with the cells and then with greater confidence prescribe medicine they’ve been able to test as working best for this individual person.
If we needed any further proof of how far-reaching the effects of stem cell research can be on making medicine not only less invasive but also more efficient and effective, now comes another momentous discovery.
According to a BusinessWeek article, a couple of pharma companies have developed a way to use stem cells to develop “human” tissue (independent of a living, breathing person), and they’re using the tissue to test drugs for potentially dangerous side effects.
The cost to develop a new drug—which can in some cases exceed $4 billion—usually includes animal trials and then human trials. Researchers have found that stem-cell-generated tissue—they are regularly producing 7 billion heart cells a month from skin and blood stem cells (not embryonic)—mimics the reactions of actual human tissue. And that allows scientists to test drugs for bad effects long before human trials would normally be scheduled.
The happiest part of this report is that this isn’t just the promise of stem cells—this work is actually going on now. One of the pharma companies used the stem-cell tissue to re-test a drug they’d worked on earlier and discarded because of a bad side effect on test animals. They found the drug had exactly the same results on the stem-cell tissue as it had had on the animals. The company realized if it had had this capability back then, it could have stopped development much sooner and saved a bundle.
Consider the potential benefits of making full use of this capability:
How much faster might useful drugs get through the pipeline and out to the patients who desperately need them?
How much might the cost of new drugs come down with pharmaceutical companies saving millions of dollars in development costs?
How many animal lives might be spared because research can be done on this “artificial” tissue instead of on rabbits or mice or chimps?
I say again, with stem cell miracles around every corner, we’ve at last discovered heaven’s own way of healing. And what we do with that power now and in the future will be limited only by our own imaginations .
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