Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University (JHU), University of California San Diego and other institutions have identified a particular protein in the body that could potentially hold the key to repairing damages caused by heart failure.

Compared to other vital organs, the heart rarely creates new cells throughout its lifetime and yet is still able to generate billions of heart beats to sustain life even as it ages. This phenomenon is what inspired scientists to find out the key to the heart's longevity.

Dr. Anthony Cammarato, an assistant professor at JHU's School of Medicineand his colleagues discovered a protein known as vinculin that is believed to be responsible for keeping the muscle of the heart pumping. 

"The heart is an amazingly resilient organ, but one that generally doesn't regenerate, and its ability to pump invariably declines with age," Cammarato said.

"Turns out, vinculin is a good guy, the body's way of slowing down the decline of one of its most vital organs as it grows old."

Cammarato explained that by understanding how the body is able to protect itself and hijacking this process through therapeutics could help scientists develop a way to stunt the decline of organs that are no longer able to regenerate.

The researchers believe the findings of their study on the role of vinculin could lead to new treatments that could prolong the lives of people afflicted by heart failure, a condition wherein the heart is enlarged but its ability to pump has significantly weakened.

Heart failure occurs when the muscle of the heart has become too stiff or weak to function properly. Symptoms associated with the condition include fatigue, shortness of breath, swollen ankles, lack of appetite, wheezing and rapid heartbeat.

The heart condition is expected to affect an estimated eight million Americans over the next 10 years.

During their initial experiments, Cammarato and his team examined vinculin levels in the heart of adult and aging monkeys, rats and fruit flies. The researchers a steady increase in vinculin levels as the subjects began to age. This suggests that as individuals grow old, the vinculin in the body rises in order to keep the heart pumping.

The researchers genetically altered the fruit flies to produce excess amounts of vinculin. The insects lived 150 percent longer compared to their normal lifespan.

Lead author Dr. Adam Engler of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine pointed out that the protein vinculin seems to be a part of a natural defense mechanism that helps reinforce the cells of the heart that are ageing. It also enhances the ability of the heart to respond to changes brought about by ageing.

The multi-organizational study is featured in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Photo: Marc Falardeau | Flickr 

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