Algae Injected Into Damaged Heart Tissue Could Save Your Life One Day

Could this prevent more than half a million deaths every single year? C N Elliott/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 16 Jun 2017, 20:25

About 610,000 people die of a heart attack every single year in the US – roughly one in four deaths. They are often caused when a blood clot stops the blood flowing into the heart, but in some cases, hypoxia – a lack of oxygen – can also induce one. When this happens, the heart tissue gets damaged, which triggers the attack.

Blood-thinning drugs and treatments can be used in the case of a blood clot-based attack, but hypoxia, which can also occur long after an initial attack, is sometimes a more troublesome beast to vanquish. A new study published in the journal Science Advances, however, may have come up with a rather novel way of doing just that, and rather bizarrely, it involves algae.

A team at Stanford University’s School of Medicine took their inspiration from the abundance of plant life around them. Photosynthesis, as any high school student knows, uses light, carbon dioxide, and water to manufacture glucose and oxygen. From vegetation to algae, it’s happening all over the planet – and without it, our world would be very different indeed.

These scientists suspected that if they injected some photosynthetic vegetation into the damaged heart tissue of a patient suffering from hypoxia, then – providing it still got some light – it would pump out oxygen directly into the cells and revive them.

First off, they had to find the right plants to use. Taking spinach and kale, they ground them into a fine powder and introduced them to living tissue being cultured within a Petri dish. Exposing them to sunlight, they were disappointed to find that photosynthesis refused to happen.

Cardiac myocytes, when derpived of oxygen, begin to wither and die. Jose Luis Calvo/Shutterstock

Suspecting the grinding process “broke” them, in a manner of speaking, the team decided to use blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria – the most primitive type of photosynthetic organism known to science.

Around 2.5 billion years ago, their ancestors were floating atop the world’s long-lost seas, slowly gulping up the volcanic carbon dioxide and pumping out oxygen. These little critters were ultimately responsible for the Great Oxygenation Event, the point in which oxygen was no longer being absorbed by the environment and could float freely in the atmosphere.

They’re actually responsible for turning our sky blue – and, having survived multiple mass extinctions over billions of years, it appears that injecting them straight into damaged heart tissue didn’t stop them doing their remarkable thing either.

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