Zebra fish inspire research to repair broken human hearts

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Heart researchers in South Australia are leading a project that will examine the self-healing abilities of zebra fish, lambs and newborn mice to potentially repair broken human hearts.

The University of South Australia will lead the $AU1 million international study in conjunction with fellow South Australian institution Flinders University, Aarhus University in Denmark and Toronto’s SickKids Research Institute.

The research team is headed by University of South Australia Professor Janna Morrison and will examine how microRNA are involved in heart regeneration. It is already known that zebrafish can completely repair damaged hearts throughout life by “spontaneous healing”, switching from a mature to an immature state. Newborn mice and fetal sheep can also regenerate injured hearts by activating critical molecules.

Human adults don’t have the ability to do this, resulting in extensive scarring after a heart attack and poor long-term health, relying on lifelong medication or pace makers to regulate their heart.

Professor Morrison will explore whether changing the expression of a specific molecule can repair cardiac damage.

“It appears that humans don’t have this capacity and we need to target the molecules involved in promoting this regenerative capacity,” she said.

“Our aim is to develop a new therapeutic treatment for people who have suffered heart attacks with extensive cardiac damage.

“If we can flick the switch to repair human hearts it will have an enormous impact on improving heart health for all. Rather than seeking treatments to reduce the symptoms of heart failure, it would be possible to prevent heart damage in the first place.”

According to the Heart Foundation, around 620,000 people are living with heart disease in Australia, and 18,590 people died from the disease in 2017.

Although deaths from heart disease have declined by 38 per cent, hospital admissions from heart attacks have risen sharply in recent decades, with more than 220,000 people hospitalised in 2015.

The $1million National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funding is part of a pool of $437 million for 495 groundbreaking health and medical research projects across Australia aimed at delivering better treatments, diagnosis and care.

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