A tiny fish, only two centimeters fully-grown and available the corner pet store, could hold the key to curing cardiovascular diseases affecting millions around the world.
When the zebra fish has a flaw in its heart, it’s able to repair it. Now, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla are working with the fish to figure out how to transfer that ability to humans.
“What we basically do is cut their hearts and see how they put it back again,” said Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, Ph.D., professor in the gene expression laboratory.
The lab houses tanks full of zebra fish. The staff puts one male and female together and overnight, they have 500 embryos. The ability of the fish to reproduce well in a lab environment is a plus.
Since regenerating heart cells in humans can be done with stem cells, the ability to work with an animal like the zebra fish is a more efficient process, according to Izpisúa Belmonte.
The fish use special cardiac cells called cardiomyocytes. Humans have these cells but, unlike the zebra fish, can’t use them to repair a damaged organ.
”The difference between a fish and a human maybe is not that much after all because we both start to do the same thing, trying to regenerate. It’s just the last step doesn’t take place in humans,” said Izpisúa Belmonte.
Researchers hope to use molecules to increase the cell cycles and the proliferation of cardiomyocytes, to awaken that last step in humans.
Other animals -- lizards, salamander and other species of fish -- have the ability to regenerate their organs but
The research is in a very preliminary stage. It’s a concept and an idea that needs to be proven however Izpisúa Belmonte believes if they can find a more efficient way to repair the human heart, the research certainly would be a major breakthrough.