A molecular switch that seems to be essential for embryonic heart cells to grow into more mature, adult-like heart cells has been discovered by researchers at University of Washington. The team state that the discovery should help scientist better understand how human hearts mature. Of particular interest to stem cell and regenerative medicine researchers, the finding may lead to laboratory methods to create heart cells that function more like those found in adult hearts.
Although previous studies have shown that it is possible to induce embryonic stem cells to become heart cells, getting them to mature to an adult-like state remains a significant challenge. The researchers state that they have now found the master switch that drives the maturation process.
The team explain that in the months before and after birth, an infant’s heart cells undergo dramatic changes. The cells enlarge, develop complex elements that enable them to contract, and switch from a metabolism that depends on glucose for most of its energy to a metabolism that derives most of its energy from fats. As a result of these changes, the newborn’s heart grows bigger, stronger and far more energy efficient. Relatively little is known about how this maturation takes place.
The current study performed transcriptome analysis of RNA produced in 20-day-old human embryonic stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes and in more mature, 13-month-old versions of these cells This type of analysis details the types and levels of RNA produced in cells at a particular time. The team were especially interested in a subset of RNA molecules called microRNA as these play a key role in controlling gene expression and, thereby help regulate the cell’s development, growth and function.
When the team compared microRNA levels seen in the 20-day-old cardiomyocytes and the more mature 13-month-old cardiomyocytes, one microRNA family, called let-7, stood out. Other miRNAs were being expressed in high levels in the more mature cells, but let-7 had increased 1000-fold. Interestingly, the let-7 family of micro RNA affects several key genes that regulate glucose metabolism, called the PI3/AKT/insulin pathway.
To further explore the role let-7 microRNA in cardiac cell maturation the researchers looked to the effects increasing and lowering let-7 levels had on the hECS-CMs. They found that when they decreased let-7 levels, the cells reverted to a glucose-based metabolism and became smaller, weaker and structurally and functionally less mature. On the other hand, when they increased let-7 levels, the cells switched to a fatty acid-based metabolism and became larger, stronger and structurally and functionally more mature.
In addition to its effect on the insulin pathway, the data findings showed that the let-7 microRNA appears to drive these metabolic and functional changes by acting on other key gene regulators. Among these is a substance, called EZH2, that affects the expression of a wide variety of genes, including those involved in cell development and differentiation.
The results indicate that let-7 microRNAs are necessary and sufficient to drive the maturation of stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes. They also suggest it may soon be possible to mature the cells in a laboratory dish simply by adding a cocktail of microRNAs to the cell culture.
Source: University of Washington
Michelle is a health industry veteran who taught and worked in the field before training as a science journalist.
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