The researchers found that the hearts of zebrafish harbor progenitor cells that spring into action to restore wounded heart muscle. Cells from a membrane layer that surrounds the heart, called the epicardium, follow suit, invading the wounded cardiac tissue and stimulating the growth of new blood vessels.
"Zebrafish can survive pretty massive injury to the heart--the loss of about a quarter of their ventricle," said Kenneth Poss of Duke University Medical Center. The ventricle, which receives blood and then pumps it back out to the body, is one of two chambers that make up the fish heart. "This study gets at some of the important mechanistic questions about how they rebuild the heart, and some of the key factors that contribute."
In contrast to zebrafish, the cardiac damage and scarring caused by heart attacks is a major killer among humans, making "the inability to replace damaged cardiac muscle one of the most prominent regenerative failures of mammals," wrote Alexandra Lepilina and Ashley Coon, the study's first authors.
However, mammalian hearts have been found to contain rare populations of progenitor cells, they added. As in zebrafish, the hearts of adult mammals, including humans, are also housed inside an epicardium, a tissue about which little is known.
"Scientists haven't paid much attention to the epicardium in adults," Poss said. "These findings in fish should encourage more exploration of what adult epicardium can do.
"There is the potential that these cells could be utilized for therapies."
The ability to regenerate tissue is a feature shared among vertebrate species, the researchers said. However, particular animals, including certain amphibians and fish, display