News, Culture & Society

Scientists discover new cell that could ‘regenerate’ diseased hearts

Could this reverse heart disease? Scientists discover special immune cell that could help the muscle heal itself – and they say it could cure the killer disease

  • Scientists at the University of Calgary have discovered a new kind of immune cell in the fluid surrounding the heart 
  • These cells, called pericardial macrophages, identify and ‘eat’ unhealthy cells
  • Scientists believe they could supercharge the macrophages to regenerate heart muscle and treat heart disease  

Scientists have discovered a cell that lives in the space surrounding the heart and which is capable of helping the heart heal itself. 

The heart is surrounded by a sac filled with liquid, called pericardial fluid. 

Although tests of the fluid can be used in diagnostics, its function has been otherwise poorly understood. 

University of Calgary researchers have discovered that this mysterious fluid contains macrophages, immune cells that help to repair the heart after injury and prevent heart muscle scarring. 

The team of scientists is optimistic that their discovery could be harnessed to help prevent or undo the damage of heart disease, the number one killer of Americans. 

Scientists have discovered an immune cell in the fluid surrounding the heart that can help the organ heal itself and repair damaged tissue, offering hope for a heart disease treatment 

The heart is a unique organ in a number of ways, but one of its singular features actually helps to fuel the burden of heart disease. 

All organs age and start to deteriorate, but most are fairly proficient at repairing themselves until old age. 

But for all its strengths, the heart lags in this department and struggles to heal or repair itself. 

In people who have or are developing cardiovascular disease, the blood vessels that feed the heart may begin to close or get blocked off.  

Among other nutrients, blood carries oxygen to the heart. Without oxygen reaching the heart via blood, the muscle tissue will sustain injury and start to die. 

When someone develops heart disease – as 11.5 percent of Americans do – their best hope is to manage the symptoms and minimize further damage. 

Surgeons can repair the faulty blood vessels in open heart surgery, place pace makers to help keep a suffering heart beating on time or, in rare cases, perform heart transplants.  

But little can repair the damage. 

Or so cardiologists thought.  

The University of Calgary researchers, however, have found that the heart’s own sac may hold a key that can be supercharged to heal the organ. 

They began their research, published in the journal Immunity by probing the pericardial fluid of mouse hearts. 

There, they discovered a previously unknown cell, called a Gata6+ pericardial cavity macrophage, that had the remarkable ability to heal heart muscle.

Macrophages – whose name literally means ‘big eaters’ – are immune cells that identify anything that doesn’t have the protein markers of healthy tissue and breaks down or consumes them. 

Much of human and mouse is actually very similar, so the scientists then went looking for these macrophages in human pericardial fluid – and they found them, working hard to fix the hearts of people who had sustained cardiac injuries. 

That suggested to the researchers that perhaps these cells could be boosted enough to become a therapy to treat scarred hearts. 

‘Our discovery of a new cell that can help heal injured heart muscle will open the door to new therapies and hope for the millions of people who suffer from heart disease,’ said Dr Paul Fedak, one of the study’s co-authors. 

‘We always knew that the heart sits inside a sac filled with a strange fluid. Now we know that this pericardial fluid is rich with healing cells. 

‘These cells may hold the secret to repair and regeneration of new heart muscle.’ 

His team’s discovery is just the very first step toward such a therapy, but it could hold promise for millions of heart disease patients.