Patching up a broken heart…with science


Travis Hairgrove, Editor

Fans of the long running British science fiction program Doctor Who have, again and again, seen its hero, The Doctor, stumble into his TARDIS (his time machine/space ship) after battling an exceptionally powerful foe, to regenerate a new, undamaged body.

While far from the pyrotechnic display that is The Doctor’s healing process, regeneration, as it exists in nature can be extraordinary in many species. Certain tailed amphibians like salamanders and newts are among the most adept at growing entirely new limbs or tails, and (even more amazingly) their brains and hearts can regenerate after being severely damaged.

This past April, Texas A&M University-Commerce entered the fast lane of regenerative medicine research, when Distinguished Research Professor Larry Lemanski of the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences and his colleagues were awarded a $1.6 million grant from the Chancellor’s Research Initiative to start up the Biomedical Institute for Regenerative Medicine (BIRR).

“We’ve discovered there’s a ribonucleic acid [RNA] that has the ability to turn non-muscle cells into cardiac muscle cells,” Lemanski said. “So, we think we can take somebody’s fibroblasts…they’re connective tissue cells that keep our skin in place and they’re easy to get, treat those cells in a tissue culture and they will turn into cardiac muscle cells. At least we can do it with mice.

Hopefully, in the future, we’ll be able to take cells from a patient’s body, convert those cells into cardiac muscle cells and use them to repair their damaged heart after a heart attack,” Lemanski continued. “This way it would be using cells that are genetically identical to the damaged heart…by using this RNA we’ve discovered.”

Dr. Lemanski not only hopes the institute’s research continues to move forward in the field of healing the heart, but also thinks it might lead the way for finding similar ways of regenerating other parts of the body as well.

“Eventually, I’m also very interested in nerve regeneration, so that people who have lost function in the nervous system can also have regeneration in the future,” Lemanski said. “The other thing that we’re interested in in the more distant future is the regeneration of limbs. With salamanders, it’s amazing that we can cut their leg off and in six months, it’s grown back just absolutely normal. It’s the right size, and does all the right things. So, we’re trying to figure out since that, also, is a vertebrate…why it can do that and we can’t.

Our goal is lofty,” Lemanski admitted. “But, we’d like the BIRR to become a world class institute, well known in the field of regeneration medicine.”

As the newly minted institute puts its $1.6 million grant to use over the next two years, Dr. Lemanski and his colleagues will be applying for even more funding from the National Science Foundation, the American Heart Association and the Department of the Army.