A Change of Heart: Penn Researchers Reprogram Brain Cells to Become Heart Cells

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Media Contact:Karen Kreeger | Karen.kreeger@uphs.upenn.edu | 215-349-5658July 11, 2011

PHILADELPHIA — For the past decade, researchers have tried to reprogram the identity of all kinds of cell types. Heart cells are one of the most sought-after cells in regenerative medicine because researchers anticipate that they may help to repair injured hearts by replacing lost tissue. Now, researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania are the first to demonstrate the direct conversion of a non-heart cell type into a heart cell by RNA transfer. Working on the idea that the signature of a cell is defined by molecules called messenger RNAs (mRNAs), which contain the chemical blueprint for how to make a protein, the investigators changed two different cell types, an astrocyte (a star-shaped brain cell) and a fibroblast (a skin cell), into a heart cell, using mRNAs.

James Eberwine, PhD, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Professor of Pharmacology, Tae Kyung Kim, PhD, post-doctoral fellow, and colleagues report their findings online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This approach offers the possibility for cell-based therapy for cardiovascular diseases.

"What's new about this approach for heart-cell generation is that we directly converted one cell type to another using RNA, without an intermediate step," explains Eberwine. The scientists put an excess of heart cell mRNAs into either astrocytes or fibroblasts using lipid-mediated transfection, and the host cell does the rest. These RNA populations (through translation or by modulation of the expression of other RNAs) direct DNA in the host nucleus to change the cell's RNA populations to that of the destination cell type (heart cell, or tCardiomyocyte), which in turn changes the phenotype of the host cell into the destination cell.

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