In a recent study, researchers from Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, California found that inserting a gene into ordinary heart cells of guinea pigs can turn the cells into rare biological pacemakers that regulate cardiac rhythm. The findings, which were published on December 16, 2012 in the journal ‘Nature Biotechology’, showed that out of a total 7 guinea pigs being injected with the virus, 5 later had heartbeats that were originated from their new pacemaker.
While 10 billion cells are found in the heart, fewer than 10,000 of them are pacemaker cells that can generate electrical activity to spread to other cardiac cells making the heart contract rhythmically and pump blood.
A virus was used to deliver human gene called Tbx18, whose normal role is to transform immature cells into pacemaker cells. These new cells generate electrical impulses spontaneously and were indistinguishable from native pacemaker cells. Tbx18 is normally active when pacemaker cells are formed during normal development in an embryo.
Besides limited battery life that require regular recharging, electronic devices also have other complications like displacement, breakage, entanglement of the leads that could be life threatening. Moreover, there are a growing number of patients contracting bacterial infection because of using electronic pacemakers. The biological pacemaker created, on the other hand, could solve most of these problems.
Building on the decade-long research into biological pacemakers, the technique has so far been tested on animals like pigs and rats. It is, however, expected this to work in humans as well. Hopefully in another 2 to 3 years, the technique can be used with the first target patients who have pacemaker device infection, according to researchers.
Until then, it is important that more studies should be carried out to understand if these findings could really help people with heart disease in the future.