Researchers create a biological pacemaker

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

natural heart pacemaker
Researchers injected a special type of DNA into a heart to create pacemaker cells!

Whether we’re on an epic roller coaster going 80 mph, or laying calmly in bed dreaming, our hearts are constantly beating away to ensure we stay alive. Pacemaker cells are responsible for regulating the heartbeat, but in some individuals, they don’t do a good job of keeping a steady rhythm. Now, thanks to a group of researchers in LA, scientists have the power to change regular heart cells into pacemakers!

More specifically, pacemaker cells are a group of cells that regularly create an electric impulse that causes the heart to contract. If these cells can’t keep a rhythm and beat too fast, the person’s heart can suffer from fatigue and give out. Similarly, if the cells go too slow or frequently skip beats, they risk stopping the heart completely and causing cardiac arrest, where the blood doesn’t circulate.

One way the medical field has worked around these faulty cells is to implant an artificial machine pacemaker and let the device monitor the heart. However, artificial pacemakers need to be replaced regularly, and they can also cause dangerous infections, which is why a group of scientists created a way to get rid of them altogether.

In place of the artificial device, the researchers were able to convert a group of regular heart cells into natural pacemakers. They used a process known as gene therapy – or using DNA as a drug to treat patient’s cells. DNA provides the microscopic blueprints that tell living things how to grow and function, so by switching around its coding, scientists can make major changes. In this case, the researchers used a virus filled with DNA that would turn regular heart cells into pacemaker cells. After they injected the virus into the heart of a pig, their methods allowed the swine’s heart to keep a regular rhythm!

This is promising news, and if the same results are replicated in humans, it could mean the end of artificial pacemakers once and for all.

Images courtesy of Advancing Society, Serving Science.