New method to reprogram cells could pave way for damaged hearts to regenerate

SAN DIEGO — Researchers from Sanford Burnham Prebys have discovered a group of proteins that could be key for cellular reprogramming, a growing topic in regenerative medicine. So far, scientists have been using the technology to repair damaged or injured body tissues. In this study, the researchers successfully reprogrammed damaged heart cells to repair heart injuries in mice after a heart attack. The findings could be pivotal for treating not just heart diseases, but Parkinson’s and neuromuscular diseases as well.

“Even if a person survives a heart attack, there could still be long-term damage to the heart that increases the risk of heart problems down the line,” says lead author Alexandre Colas, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Development, Aging and Regeneration Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys, in a media release. “Helping the heart heal after injury is an important medical need in its own right, but these findings also pave the way for wider applications of cell reprogramming in medicine.”

“Cellular reprogramming could, in theory, allow us to control the activity and appearance of any cell,” explains Colas. “This concept has huge implications in terms of helping the body regenerate itself, but barriers to reprogramming mechanisms have prevented the science from moving from the lab to the clinic.”

This could help repair cells throughout the body

The four proteins identified are called AJSZ, and they help address the barriers to reprogramming. The team was able to block the proteins, lessening scarring, and leading to an improvement in overall heart function by 50 percent. Even though these findings are relative to heart cells, the researchers say that the proteins are universal to all cell types.

“This is helping us solve a very big problem that a lot of researchers are interested in,” says Colas. “Even more important, this breakthrough is a significant step forward on our way to turning these promising biological concepts into real treatments.”

In the near future, the team hopes to take this great discovery and start applying it to real-life patients by identifying different ways to block AJSZ function swiftly and effectively. The best option right now is using a small molecule drug to do so, Colas explains.

“We need to find a way to inhibit these proteins in a way we can control to make sure we are only reprogramming the cells that need it,” the researcher concludes. “We will be screening for drugs that can help us inhibit these proteins in a controlled and selective manner in the coming months.”

The findings appear in the journal Nature Communications.

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