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Healthy lives

Pacemakers of the future

More than two million people in the UK experience problems with an irregular heartbeat, according to the NHS. Most continue to live a normal life but certain conditions like Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, which caused footballer Fabrice Muamba to collapse on the pitch, can be extremely serious if left untreated.

The typical surgical intervention would be a pacemaker, which forces the heart to relax and contract using an electrical current. But the work we are doing in the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences could change that. 

Imagine being able to stimulate heart cells with no electrical charge, simply a flash of LED light. That’s what we have been able to achieve in our laboratories, using a process called optogenetics – the combination of genetics and light to control cell behaviour. 

After growing heart cells from patients’ skin samples, we have used a technique known as CRISPR Cas9, which are ‘molecular scissors’ that can introduce external genes to the cells. One of these – channelrhodopsin-2 – is found in algae and helps it move towards light. When placed into our heart cells we’ve been able to make them respond to blue light. Turn the light on and the cell contracts, turn it off and it relaxes.

"Imagine being able to stimulate heart cells with no electrical charge, simply a flash of LED light."
Dr Jamie Bhagwan

When the light shines it allows an influx of positively charged ions into the cells - including Na+ – which then leads to depolarisation and, subsequently, contraction. 

Our work, which has been supported by the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange (BIRAX) and the British Heart Foundation, allows us to study complex heart conditions without the use of animals or primary heart tissue. 

While still a way off, it is enabling us to envisage a future where bulky pacemakers could be replaced with LED technology, improving the care for millions of heart patients across the world.

Jamie Bhagwan

Dr Jamie Bhagwan is a postdoctoral researcher based in the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences.

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