Cancer cells have no trouble proliferating, regenerating until overgrowth causes tumors. Researchers are taking advantage of this problem, utilizing cancer cells' prolific nature to combat age-related heart damage.

Mark Sussman, San Diego State University Heart Institute's chief research scientist, and colleagues are exploring how a better understanding of cancer cells can help pave the way for better heart care. Heart cells lose their ability to regenerate as a person ages that's why it's very difficult for patients with heart-related conditions to get better as they get older. But what if biotechnology can be used to give heart cells the prolific nature of cancer cells? This is the ultimate goal of a study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

"When's the last time you heard of anyone having heart cancer?" asked Sussman.

Pim is an enzyme that is associated with the ability of certain cancer cell types to grow and survive. For the study, the researchers took Pim and caused it to overexpress in cardiac progenitor mice cells. If cells are healthy, the enzyme facilitates the splitting of chromosomes, a crucial step in the process of cell division.

PIM1 is the gene responsible for encoding the production of Pim. As a proto-oncogene, PIM1 doesn't not lead to cancer. However, when paired with Myc, another gene, the likelihood of tumors developing grows. Fortunately, the combination of the Pim and Myc genes is not an issue with cardiac progenitor cells, meaning the PIM1 gene can be overexpressed but there will be no risk of developing cancer.

The researchers modified cardiac progenitor cells from mice to induce an overexpression of PIM1 in certain locations within cells and were delighted to discover that their idea works. However, results differed depending on where PIM1 was injected into a cardiac progenitor cell.

If it was in the cell's nucleus, a proliferation of new cells was observed. If the overexpression occurred in the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell, cells lived longer because natural signals for self-destruction were blocked. Depending on the needs of a heart patient, doctors can manipulate where the overexpression of PIM1 will occur to produce desired results.

Sussman's team have been able to replicate the results with human cells and are now in the process of raising funds to embark on a clinical trial in which a heart patient's own progenitor cells will be modified to overexpress PIM1 and then implanted back to hopefully spur the heart to rejuvenate and repair itself.

Photo: Emmanuel Huybrechts | Flickr

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