Mending a broken heart
Hi! My name is Abi Robertson and I am a second year PhD student in the cardiovascular group at the University of Manchester. After finishing my A Levels I started an Anatomical Science degree at the University of Manchester. This was where my love for the heart began! Following my undergraduate degree I completed an MRes in Cardiovascular Health and Disease here and this enabled me to apply for a PhD funded by the British Heart Foundation. You can find more information on my PhD and the other cardiovascular courses available here .
My PhD project is called ‘Targeting the Hippo signalling pathway to enhance the protective effects of iPSC-derived cardiomyocytes’ (A bit of a mouthful!). In short this means I am looking at how cells signal within themselves to divide and to see if we can target this to help stem cells become heart cells and survive.
During a heart attack the blood supply to the heart is stopped. Lack of blood and oxygen damages the heart cells. This can result in a severe loss of cells in sections of your heart. Unlike other tissues in your body, such as your skin, cells in the heart cannot heal themselves. This leaves an area in the heart that cannot beat like the surrounding tissue. This is called an infarct area. If the infarct area is quite large it can affect how your heart functions, leads to health problems and even heart failure.
For the heart to be able to function normally again the heart cells need to be replaced. Attempts are being made to heal the heart by creating heart cells in the lab from stem cells. Using new technology we can re-programme skin cells into stem cells. The skin is an excellent source of cells as they are easily available. These stem cells are called Induced Pluripotent Stem cells. These cells can then be turned into any cell type in the body including the beating cells in the heart. The hope for this therapy is that these cells can be used to make patches and be placed on the heart like a plaster.
Before this is possible we need to make sure the heart cells we are using are able to survive in the challenging environment of the infarct area. Firstly, the infarct area has low oxygen and nutrients, so the cells need to be able to cope with this. Secondly, it is estimated over a billion cells are lost after a heart attack so a lot of heart cells are needed!
This is why my PhD project is looking at the signalling within cells and seeing if we can create cells which survive but also divide in tough environments. We hope to create super heart cells!
I really enjoy working in this area of research. It’s a relatively new area so there are always lots of exciting discoveries! Hopefully one day using stem cells as a therapy will become the treatment of choice for people who have suffered a heart attack!
Here are a few links if you would like any more information on the area:
The Stem Cell Network has created some excellent videos on ‘What are stem cells?’
Explore an interactive comic about stem cells:
An excellent TED talk by Susan Soloman on the use of induced pluripotent stem cells:
The National Institute of Health has an excellent website that covers pretty much everything you could want to know about stem cells:
A stem cell story:
YouTube user John Schell has some great videos of beating heart cells that have been derived from Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells:
This BBC article discusses a clinical trial that is underway to see if stem cells can heal broken hearts: