Scientists in Germany at the Max Planck Institute have identified a key molecule that plays a central role in regulating the function of stem cells in the heart. It’s called Ajuba, a transcription factor from the group of LIM proteins. What significance has this? It means, not only could congenital heart defects be avoided in future, but new ways of stimulating the regeneration of damaged hearts in adults may be opened up.
It’s a complicated and long process the growing of a heart and a lot happens until a heart is complete. The scientists have now discovered how major parts of this development process are regulated. Using an animal model they have found that, when Ajuba is lacking or not functioning in the process it results in severe faults in the heart. What happens is an enlargement of the heart, which is attributable to a greatly increased number of cardiac muscle cells. Ajuba is a decisive factor in controlling stem cell activity; it stops it.
The importance of this study in a few points:
1. Once scientists understand how cardiac development is regulated, they will also be more familiar with the causes of congenital heart defects and will consequently be able to consider therapeutic approaches.
2. Damaged adult hearts can also be repaired in this way: One possibility would be to optimise the production of replacement cells from embryonic or artificially produced stem cells in the laboratory. Silencing Ajuba in these cells might enhance their development into functional cardiac muscle cells. Sufficient replacement cells for treating patients could be cultured in this way.
3. Another possibility is to stimulate stem cell activity by silencing Ajuba in the damaged heart and so cause the heart to regenerate itself. Further studies are now set to investigate how feasible this might be.