12/07/2012 03:17 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Un-Break My Heart: Limited Capacity for Regeneration in the Heart

Some cardiovascular researchers believe that the heart contains cardiac stem cells or progenitor cells which can become mature cardiomyocytes (beating heart cells) following an injury and regenerate the damaged heart. The paper "Mammalian heart renewal by pre-existing cardiomyocytes" published in the journal Nature by Senyo and colleagues (online publication on December 5, 2012), on the other hand, suggests that the endogenous regenerative potential of the adult heart is very limited. The researchers studied the regeneration of cardiomyocytes in mice using a genetic label that marks cardiomyocytes with a green fluorescent protein and they also used the nonradioactive stable isotope 15N (Nitrogen-15) to track the growth of cardiomyocytes. They found that the adult mouse heart has a very low rate of cardiomyocyte regeneration and projected the annual proliferation rate to be only 0.76 percent. This means that less than one out of a hundred cardiomyocytes in the adult heart undergoes cell division during a one-year period. Even though this number is derived from studying the turnover of cardiomyocytes in mice, it correlates very well with the proposed rate of annual cardiomyocyte self-renewal (0.5 percent to 1 percent) that Bergmann and colleagues estimated for the human heart in a 2009 paper published in Science.

The key novelty of the paper by Senyo and colleagues is that they identified the source of these new cardiomyocytes. They do not arise from cardiac stem cells or cardiac progenitor cells, but are primarily derived from pre-existing adult cardiomyocytes. Does this low rate of cardiomyocyte turnover increase after an injury? Senyo and colleagues found that eight weeks after a heart attack, only 3.2 percent of the mouse cardiomyocytes located near the injured areas had undergone cell division.

This low rate of self-renewal in the adult heart sounds like bad news for researchers who thought that the adult heart had the ability to heal itself after a heart attack. However, the journal Nature also published the paper "Functional screening identifies miRNAs inducing cardiac regeneration" by Eulalio and colleagues on the same day (online publication on December 5, 2012), which indicates that the low levels of cardiomyocyte growth can be increased using certain microRNAs. A microRNA is a small RNA molecule that can regulate the expression of hundreds of genes and can play an important role in controlling many cellular processes such as cell growth, cell metabolism and cell survival. Eulalio and colleagues performed a broad screen using 875 microRNA mimics in new-born rat cardiomyocytes and identified 204 microRNAs that increase the growth of the cells. They narrowed down the number of microRNAs and were able to show that two distinct microRNAs increased the growth of cardiomyocytes after heart attacks in mice. The effect was quite significant and mice treated with these microRNAs had near-normal heart function 60 days after a heart attack.

Based on these two Nature papers, it appears that the cardiomyocytes in the adult heart have a kind of "brake" that prevents them from proliferating. Addition of specific microRNAs seems to relieve the "brake" and allow the adult heart cells to regenerate the heart after a heart attack. This could lead to potential new therapies for patients who suffer from heart attacks, but some important caveats need to be considered. MicroRNAs (and many other cardiovascular therapies) that work in mice or rats do not necessarily have the same beneficial effects in humans. The mice in the study by Eulalio and colleagues also did not receive any medications that patients routinely receive after a heart attack. Patients usually show some improvement in their heart function after a heart attack, if they are treated with the appropriate medications. Since the mice were not treated with the medications, it is difficult to assess whether the microRNAs would have a benefit beyond that what is achieved by conventional post-heart attack medications. Finally, the delivery and dosing of microRNAs is comparatively easy in mice but much more challenging in a heterogeneous group of patients.

The studies represent an important step forward towards identifying the self-renewal mechanisms in the adult heart and suggest that microRNAs are major regulators of these processes, but many additional studies are necessary before their therapeutic value for patients can be assessed.

An earlier version of this article was first published on the Scilogs stem cells blog "The Next Regeneration".