TIME heart

Pigs Can Grow Their Own Pacemakers

And the scientists say that the technique, which involves cutting edge reprogramming of cells, may be tested in people soon

+ READ ARTICLE

Pacemakers are remarkable devices that save the lives of 300,000 people in the U.S. each year. They essentially take over for failing hearts, but since the devices require invasive surgery to implant in the heart, researchers have been looking for less invasive approaches to keeping the heart ticking. And now, reporting in the journal Science Translational Medicine, Dr. Eduardo Marban, director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, has a lead—thanks to pigs.

“We were able for the first time to create a biological pacemaker using minimally invasive methods, and show that the new pacemaker cells suffice to support the demands of daily life,” he said. “When the pigs exercised, the hearts beat faster. When they were at rest, their hearts slowed down.”

He and his colleagues say that a single gene can transform existing heart cells to take over the function of ailing pacemaker cells in the heart, The group tested their theory in mice, and were encouraged enough by the results to predict that human trials may be as close as three years away.

MORE: A ‘Vaccine’ for Heart Disease Could Mean No Pills, Lettuce or a Gym

Marban has been working for more than a decade to find a better way to keep pacemaker patients’ hearts pumping at the right rate. In particular, he was focused on the 2% of them who need to go on antibiotics to treat an infection—because the devices are foreign objects implanted into the body, infections are possible—and in the interim have their pacemakers removed to be cleaned. During that time, these patients receive a temporary pacing device connected to a catheter, but the catheter itself may be an additional source of infection and make the antibiotic treatment less effective.

MORE: Single Gene Responsible for Group of Heart Disease Risk Factors

In Marban’s experiment, he simply loaded deactivated cold viruses, which are able to easily infect cells, with a gene—called TBX18—that is active during fetal development but later shuts off. Earlier studies showed that simply bathing cells in TBX triggered normal heart cells to start morphing into the ones that keep hearts working. That’s exactly what happened in the seven pigs whose hearts were injected with the gene. A small proportion of their normal heart cells, the size of a peppercorn, were transformed into electrically pulsing cells and essentially took over the pacemaker function of the pigs’ hearts.

Dr. Eugenio Cingolani, director of the cardiogenetics-familial arrhythmia clinic at Cedars Sinai and a co-author of the paper, said that while encouraging, more studies on the efficacy of the genetic reprogramming process, as well as a more in-depth analysis of the potential adverse effects are needed.

But the findings represent a promising first step toward a potentially new technique for treating certain life-threatening conditions.

“This development heralds a new era in gene therapy, where genes are used not only to correct deficiency disorders but to convert one cell to another to treat disease,” said Marban. “Now that we and others are hot on the trail of developing therapeutics based on this principle of cell reprogramming, I anticipate that the flood gates will open and people will look for genes of interest to do whatever they want in particular organs or tissues of interest.”

At the very least, he believes that a hardware-free, biological pacemaker based on the technique could become reality.

TIME heart

VIDEO: Here’s How Your Heart Actually Works

In a short video, Edmond Hui explains how the human hearts actually pumps blood

+ READ ARTICLE

The heart has baffled scientists for centuries, and its inner workings still confuse a lot of people. So Dr. Edmond Hui set out to make a video that would explain it in clear terms once and for all.

In the video above, Edmond Hui retraces how scientists used to think the heart worked compared to how it actually works.

TIME movies

Intense Movies May Be Dangerous for People With Weak Hearts

Robin Tunney In 'Vertical Limit'
A scene from the 2000 movie 'Vertical Limit' Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

Dramatic scenes that leave moviegoers’ chests pounding could be dangerous for viewers with already weak hearts, a small study shows, drawing a link between emotionally stressful cinematography and potentially dangerous cardiac changes in audience members

It’s no surprise to anyone who’s felt their heart jump into their throat while watching a scary movie that these scenes can be stressful. But can that stress be measured by scientists — and is it dangerous?

In a small study published yesterday in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology, researchers tracked how emotional stress — in this case, watching a harrowing five-minute clip of the rock-climbing movie Vertical Limit — affects the heart. They measured the blood pressure, heart rhythm and breathing speed of 19 heart patients while they watched the scene and found that the clip affected the stability of their heart beat while also increasing blood pressure and how quickly the patients were breathing.

“If someone already has a weakened heart, or if they experience a much more extreme stress,” said study author Dr. Ben Hanson of University College London, “the effect could be much more destabilizing and dangerous.”

(Researchers recreated those breathing patterns without subjecting the patients to the clip and found no such change in heart rate, suggesting that the emotional stress — and not just the increased respiration — was to blame.)

In a statement about the study, Dr. Ben Hanson, one of its authors, said that the results did vary but the observation of cardiac changes was consistent. So, though there’s no reason for healthy movie fans to worry, those with preexisting heart problems might want to take it under consideration.

Watch the clip at your own risk here:

 

TIME

Researchers Are Going to Dose 18,000 Volunteers With Little Chocolate Pills

Chocolate bars heap
Getty Images

Rest of the world dies of envy

Researchers will feed intense concentrations of chocolate to thousands of volunteers to see if it improves their heart health.

No, this isn’t a chocoholic’s fever dream, this is a three year study just launched by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and chocolate-maker Mars Inc.

According to AP, the study expands on previous research of cocoa flavanols, the essential nutrients in dark chocolate, which have been shown to lower the risk of strokes and heart attacks.

Lest anyone think about self-medicating in the name of science, researchers caution that the pills also strip out sugar and fat. They also contain concentrations of chocolate nutrients that no one could get from regular candy bars without bursting.
[AP]

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser