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Newts which regrow their hearts

When a newt loses a limb, the limb regrows. What is more, a newt can also completely repair damage to its heart. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research in Bad Nauheim have now started to decode the cellular mechanisms in this impressive ability to regenerate and have discovered the remarkable plasticity of newt heart cells. As mammals, and therefore also humans, do not have this ability, the findings could contribute to new cell therapies for patients with damaged organs (Journal of Cell Science, 2006).

The red-spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens, is a favourite animal of the researchers working with Thomas Braun in Nauheim. This amphibian comes from the wetlands of North America, but it also feels quite at home in the Institute’s aquaria. It is a small animal that scientists find interesting for a particular reason: whereas humans cannot regenerate damaged heart muscle adequately after a heart attack and the destroyed muscle tissue scars over instead, following damage, a newt’s heart can be completely repaired and the organ’s function can be completely restored.

The key to this ability to regenerate are the heart muscle cells themselves. When a newt’s heart sustains damage, its cells can lose their characteristic properties; they can dedifferentiate. The researchers were able to show that proteins typical of heart muscle cells - the heavy myosin chain and various troponins - were dramatically down-regulated in this process. At the same time, the cells embark on massive cell division to build up new heart muscle. It takes around two weeks for the heart function to be restored in the newt. The data shows that at this point the expression of the muscle-specific proteins is again normal, i.e. the cells have differentiated again, and have regained their characteristic properties.

The researchers isolated the heart muscle cells and cultured them. In most of the cells, Braun and his colleagues were able to
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Source:Max-Planck-Gesellschaft


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