After a heart attack, inflammation in the heart kills off heart muscle cells and fibroblasts in the heart make a protein called collagen, which forms a heart scar. The heart scar does not contract and does not conduct electrochemical signals. The scar will contract over time, but its presence can lead to abnormal heart rhythms, also known as arrhythmias. Arrythmias can be fatal, since they can cause a heart attack. To prevent a heart attack, physicians will treat heart attack patients with a group of drugs called beta-blockers that slow down the heart rate and protect the heart from the deleterious effects of norepinephrine (secreted by the sympathetic nerve inputs to the heart). An alternative treatment is digoxin or digitalis, which is a chemical found in foxglove. Digitalis inhibits ion pumps in heart muscle cells and slows the heart and the force of its contractions. Digitalis, however, interacts with a whole shoe box fill of drugs, has a very long half-life, and is hard to dose. Therefore it is not the first choice.
Given all this, helping the heart to make a smaller heart scar is a better strategy for treating a heart after a heart attack. To accomplish this, you need to inhibit the heart fibroblasts that make the heart scar in the first place. Secondly, you must move something into the place of the dead cells. Otherwise, the heart could burst or scar tissue will move into the area anyway.
To that end, Yigang Wang and his colleagues at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in Ohio have published an ingenious paper in which they tried two different strategies to reduce the size of the heart scar, which concomitantly increased the colonization of the heart by induced pluripotent stem cells engineered to express a sodium-calcium exchange pump.
Previously, Wang and his colleagues used a patch to heal the heart after a heart attack. The patch consisted of endothelial cells, which make blood vessels, induced pluripotent stem cells engineered to make a sodium-calcium exchange pump called NCX1, and embryonic fibroblasts. This so-called tri-cell patch makes new blood vessels, establishes new heart muscle, and the foundational matrix molecules to form a platform for beating heart muscle.
In order to get these cells to spread throughout the injured heart, Wang and others used a reagent that specifically inhibits heart fibroblasts. They used a small non-coding RNA molecule. A group of microRNAs called miR-29 family are downregulated after a heart attack. As it turns out, these microRNAs inhibit a group of genes that involved in collagen deposition. Therefore, by overexpressing miR-29 microRNAs, they could prevent collagen deposition and reduce scar formation.
The experimental design in this paper is rather complex. Therefore, I will go through it slowly. First, they tried to overexpress miR-29 microRNAs in cultured heart fibroblasts and sure enough, they inhibited collagen synthesis. Cells overexpressing miR-29 made less than a third of the collagen of their normal counterparts. When they placed these fibroblasts into the heart and induced heart attacks, again, they made significantly less collagen when they were expressing miR-29.
Then they used their miR-29 RNAs by injecting them directly into the heart before inducing a heart attack, and then after the heart attack, they applied the tri-patch. Their results were significant. The scar size was smaller (almost one-third the size of the controls), and the density of blood vessels was much higher in the tri-patched hearts treated with miR-29. The induced pluripotent stem cells differentiated into heart muscle cells and spread throughout the heart. Heart function measures also consistently went up too. The echiocardiograph before more normal, the ejection fraction went up, the % shortening of the heart muscle fibers was increased, and the relaxation phase of the heart (diastole) also was not so puffy (see graphs and figures below).
There is a cautionary note to this study. Inhibiting collagen formation after a heart attack could create soft fragile regions of the heart that are subject to rupture should the vascular systolic pressure increase. While that threat was not observed in this study, human hearts, which are much larger, would be much more susceptible to such a mishap. Therefore, while this study is interesting and suggest a strategy in humans, it requires more testing and refinement before anyone can even think about applying it to humans.