This Protein Tricks Your Heart Into Thinking It's Exercising

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Scientists say they have found a way to trick the heart into pumping more blood and growing more healthily, as it would during exercise or pregnancy. The research could reduce the need for transplants.

The study, led by The Ottawa Hospital and published in Cell Research, involved a protein called cardiotrophin 1 (CT1). They found it could not only help the heart grow in a more healthy way, but it could also repair heart damage and improve blood flow.

Heart failure is a leading cause of death in high-income countries. It occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood around the body, often a result of a heart attack damaging muscle tissue. If the condition gets severe, a heart transplant may be necessary.

"When part of the heart dies, the remaining muscles try to adapt by getting bigger, but this happens in a dysfunctional way and it doesn't actually help the heart pump more blood," said Dr Lynn Megeney, senior author of the study and a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, in a statement. "We found that CT1 causes heart muscles to grow in a more healthy way and it also stimulates blood vessel growth in the heart. This actually increases the heart's ability to pump blood, just like what you would see with exercise and pregnancy."

The study was not performed on humans but rather mice and rats, and also with cells growing in the lab. With further testing in humans, though, it’s thought CT1 could be used to treat heart conditions.

The researchers found that CT1 had a number of benefits. Heart muscle cells that were treated with CT1 became longer and healthier, while blood vessels crew alongside new heart muscle tissue. Importantly, heart functionality returned to normal after CT1 treatment stopped, something not seen in certain drugs like phenylephrine (PE) that cause irreversible growth.

CT1 was also found to treat heart failure in both the left and right side of the heart. Currently, right heart failure can only be treated with a transplant. In addition, CT1 was found to be useful over a range of scenarios.

"An intriguing aspect of this research was how human CT1 was able to promote a healthy growth response in multiple animal models," said co-author Dr Patrick Burgon, from the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, in the statement. "This suggests the action of CT1 is universally conserved and puts us much closer to therapy."

If further tests are successful, CT1 therapy could be available within a decade.

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