- Heart disease is the most common cause of death in the US.
- Heart damage in humans is permanent because heart muscle cannot regenerate.
- In zebrafish, heart muscle can heal itself and completely regenerate after being damaged.
- Researchers are studying zebrafish to discover how human hearts can heal after being damaged.
After surviving a heart attack, Jim was stunned to learn that he would still live with a serious problem: heart failure. His heart muscle had been deprived of oxygen and tissue had died, leaving his weakened heart unable to pump blood efficiently. Fluid build up in his body was causing his ankles to swell (“Heart failure,” 2013). Often short of breath and extremely tired, he sometimes struggled to get out of bed in the morning. Accepting that his life span would be significantly shortened, Jim wished that his heart could magically heal itself.
Amazingly, the heart of a zebrafish can completely regenerate after major damage. The damaged heart takes less than two months to return to normal. Proteins called fibroblast growth factors (FGFs) found in zebrafish are critical to the formation of blood vessels needed for new heart muscle to survive (Liu et al., 2006). Without FGF signaling, a scar forms, which is similar to what happens when a human has a heart attack. (Curado & Stainier, 2006).
Zebrafish are an ideal model for studying heart problems. Their embryos develop all major organs, including the heart, within twenty-four hours, and their transparent bodies allow researchers to observe these organs very easily (Bopp et al., 2006). In addition, human hearts and zebrafish hearts are very similar, both structurally and developmentally. The same genes control heart formation in both zebrafish and humans. (McKie, 2013).
Researchers are studying zebrafish to determine which genes are involved in regeneration. If these genes can be found and expressed in humans, a damaged heart could essentially heal itself, speeding recovery from heart attacks and perhaps preventing heart failure.
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