British researchers develop gel that can repair damage after heart attack

Researchers have been successful in generating heart tissues in a biodegradable gel that could lead to new cardiovascular treatments.

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Heart gel
The team was also able to show that gel can support the growth of normal heart muscle tissue. (Photo: BHF)

With the world facing a massive burden of heart-related diseases, researchers in the United Kingdom have developed a new gel that can help repair damage caused by a heart attack. Researchers have been able to support the growth of heart muscle using the gel, showing scope for enhancing cardiovascular treatments.

Scientists have long been looking for ways to reduce the risk of progression to heart failure. However, only one per cent of the cells injected directly into the heart have remained in place and survived. The latest research has helped in developing a new gel that can be safely injected into the beating heart to act as a scaffold for cells to grow new tissue.

The gel is made of chains of amino acids called peptides, the building blocks of proteins. The bonds between the peptides mean that the gel can exist in different states. When it’s under stress, the peptides disassemble and behave like a liquid, making it ideal for injecting.

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The study was presented at the British Cardiovascular Society conference in Manchester. The team of researchers from the University of Manchester is hopeful that their gel will become a key part of future regenerative treatments for damaged hearts.

"The heart has a very limited ability to repair any damage it sustains. Our research has been looking for ways to overcome this so we can keep the heart in a healthier place for longer. While it’s still early days, the potential this new technology has in helping to repair failing hearts after a heart attack is huge," Katharine King, a Ph.D. student, who led the study said in a statement.

She is confident that the gel will be an effective option for future cell-based therapies to help the damaged heart to regenerate. The researchers maintained that a good blood supply will be vital for the injected cells to develop into new tissue and they observed signs of blood vessel growth in the gel, proving the technology could boost the growth of new vessels.

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The team was also able to show that gel can support the growth of normal heart muscle tissue. The team was able to grow the tissues when they added human cells that had been reprogrammed to become heart muscle cells into the gel. After growing for three weeks, the "cells started to spontaneously beat."

The British Heart Foundation (BHF), which funded the project, said that the team injected the gel with a fluorescent tag into the hearts of healthy mice, which revealed that the gel remained in the heart for two weeks. Echocardiograms (ultrasounds of the heart) and electrocardiograms (ECGs, which measure the electrical activity of the heart) showed the method to be safe.

Researchers are now planning to test the gel in mice after a heart attack to see whether the heart cells can develop new muscle tissue.