A key protein that can potentially reverse a deadly heart condition has been identified by an international team of experts, raising hopes for the development of newer therapies.

Led by Roger J. Hajjar and Woo Jin Park, the research team created heart failure models and found that the matricellular protein CCN5 can undo established cardiac fibrosis.

Cardiac fibrosis is a fatal heart condition that occurs when healthy heart cells are replaced with fibrous connective tissue. This could cause scarring as well as a less compliant and stiffer cardiac muscle.

Experts said this condition can predict the progression of heart failure, which results in an estimated 450,000 deaths in the United States annually.

Currently, there are no effective therapies for cardiac fibrosis available, but the disease is considered a valid target for treatment.

Hajjar, who is a professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, said their research is the first to demonstrate the ability of CCN5 to reverse cardiac fibrosis.

Having established that CCN5 is significantly lower in the myocardium of patients with severe heart failure, Hajjar and his colleagues investigated whether CCN5 can reverse cardiac fibrosis in animal trials.

The scientists stimulated extensive cardiac fibrosis in the animal models, and then transferred CCN5 to the heart.

After two months, they checked the molecular and cellular effects. Indeed, CCN5 managed to reverse cardiac fibrosis. Their data suggests that the protein could be used for developing new anti-cardiac fibrosis treatments.

Park, who is a professor of Life Sciences at South Korea's Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, said that because CCN5 is a secreted protein, they may be able to deliver the protein itself instead of the gene. The protein may be delivered in the form of engineered stem cells designed to express CCN5.

"The efficacy of these alternative approaches has yet to be tested," added Park. "But they certainly deserve a serious consideration."

Meanwhile, Hajjar said the new anti-cardiac fibrosis therapies could benefit many patients with previously untreatable heart failure.

"We are dedicated to making significant strides in developing potential bench-to-bedside treatments for heart failure and other cardiovascular diseases," added Hajjar.

The team's findings are featured in the Journal of American College of Cardiology (JACC).

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