Controlling your heart beats with optogenetics

Using computer-generated light patterns, researchers were able to control the direction of spiraling electrical waves in heart cells. Credit: Eana Park

Optogenetics, a new branch of science studying the use of light to interact with cells, has been applied so far to interact with neurones. You first condition a neurone by attaching a protein that is sensitive to light and then you use light to activate that protein leading to a chain reaction that stimulate the neurone to do (or not do) specific activities.

Now a team of researchers from Oxford and Stony Brook universities have found a way to use optogenetics to finely control the electrical signals that make the heart beat.

So far doctors have had the possibility of starting/stopping the heart electrical activity by using an electrical stimulator, a pacemaker, or drugs (beta-blockers). These methods cannot steer the direction of the electrical wave that stimulates the various muscle fibres to contract.

Borrowing from neurological practice they have shown how to apply optogenetics to finely control the electrical wave in terms of speed and direction. After a stroke, or because of fibroses, the heart tissue may present scars and the electrical wave gets distorted and slows down when going through the scar. These result in parts of the heart contracting at a certain time and other parts not contracting at all or contracting at a different time opposing the first contraction effect. This decreases the heart capability of pumping blood and sometimes can be fatal.

The current methods of heart beat regulation, pacemaker and beta-blockers, are not effective in these situation. Hence the importance of this discovery.

The scientists using gene therapy have modified heart cells to embed a molecule of channelrhodopsin (rhodopsin is the molecule in our retina's cells that capture light) and have shown that by using a computer to regulate a light beam hitting the cells they can reshape the electrical wave to propagate in a correct way.

This work has taken place in a lab, not on a beating heart in a human being so it will take several more years to move into human trials and then into medical practice. However, the door has been opened and scientists are confident that progress in genetic therapy and in electronics miniaturisation will lead to feasible practice in the next decade.  

Will researchers be stopping talking about "fibre to the home" in the next decade to move on to "fibre to the heart"? It will still be FTTH....

Author - Roberto Saracco

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