Improving Health & Medicine

February is American Heart Month

E-News, February 2016 • TAGS: Biology, Genetics

2016-02-ACWIS-enews-FEB-header-isolated

Our hearts mean many things – love, strength, loyalty. But even if we set aside everything they represent and consider hearts from a purely biological perspective, they are still awesome. These four-chambered, fist-sized, muscular powerhouses pump up to 2,000 gallons of blood a day! However, while they never tire and are astonishingly resilient, they are susceptible to a number of illnesses, which can be caused by a number of things: congenital issues, genetics, obesity, diabetes, inactivity, and more. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death for female, male, black, white, and Latino Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and is responsible for one in every four deaths in the U.S.

That’s why, in observance of American Heart Month, we’d like to share with you some of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s amazing basic research on the heart.

The heart and its illnesses are complicated, making ideal research subjects for Weizmann’s hallmark multidisciplinary approach. Researchers from a range of scientific fields bring their expertise to bear on studying the heart in health and disease, seeking to gain knowledge and devise new and better ways to protect and preserve this treasured organ.

For example, Prof. Eldad Tzahor recently made a major breakthrough when he was able to actually regenerate heart cells in mice. This is so significant because heart cells cannot regenerate on their own, which is a big part of why heart disease is so often fatal. Most other cells in our body can renew themselves, which means that trauma can be repaired. Not so for the heart, whose cells cease to divide shortly after birth. Prof. Tzahor wondered why this happens, and his investigations revealed that a "pathway" of reactions among proteins and other elements can induce cardiac regeneration. He and his team, including colleagues in Australia, developed a method that proved to be effective in helping mice heal after a heart attack – within several weeks of the event, the mice had nearly complete heart regeneration.

Prof. Tzahor plans to refine and improve his process, which could someday lead to ways of renewing heart cells – and saving lives all over the world. 

Dr. Karina Yaniv starts at the very beginning – the embryo – in order to understand the causes of heart disease. By observing how the heart and related systems – in particular, blood and lymphatic vessels – develop in the first place, she aims to create novel therapies for heart disease. Surprisingly, even though the heart has been studied for centuries, it is still a mystery; thus, Dr. Yaniv also seeks to answer unresolved basic questions about the heart, such as: "How does the heart grow into a piece of precision machinery with chambers, valves, and perfectly synchronized pumping mechanisms?" and "how do the veins and arteries that transport blood develop at the same time as the growing limbs and organs?"

Using zebrafish embryos – which are transparent, meaning their entire vascular system can be seen growing and changing in real time – to study vessel formation, Dr. Yaniv’s research could lead to new therapies not only for heart disease, but for stroke, cancer, and other devastating conditions. 

Prof. Doron Lancet and his team, working with colleagues at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, identified a gene that leads to polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (PVT), a fatal heart condition. Characterized by a fast and irregular heartbeat, seizures, and even sudden death, PVT primarily affects young children. The genetic mutation behind PVT, which was found in an Israeli Bedouin tribe reputed to be descended from just three brothers, had caused the deaths of nine children in a single tribe. The scientists suspected a genetic cause, and closely watched the Human Genome Project – underway at the time – looking for something that could help. Their diligence paid off: they found a newly mapped gene that related to PVT. A very small mutation in that gene was enough to cause the fatal disease.

While the finding is expected to improve screening for and treatment of PVT, it may also lead to improved understanding of other heart conditions, says Weizmann team member Dr. Nili Avidan, as these mutations could be the cause of a number of still-mysterious heart disorders.

Heart disease, in its many forms, affects far too many of us. But you can help protect the hearts of all humankind by supporting these amazing Weizmann scientists as they work to understand, prevent, and treat heart disease. It’s the perfect gift for Valentine’s Day – or any day.