Imperial College London

The regenerative medicine researchers making science fiction a reality

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Deadpool (Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

Deadpool (Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

Can we create a real-life Deadpool? Imperial researchers consider how their science might help make the powers of Marvel Comics' character a reality.

If you like action movies, what do the following movies have in common: The Wolverine (or any X-Men movie with him in it), Deadpool, or The Fifth Element? The answer is that in these movies, the characters either have an inherent ability to repair and regenerate tissue (Deadpool and Wolverine), or the movie is set in the future in which tissue regeneration is a matter of course (a 3D printer prints an entire body in The Fifth Element).

All of these examples are, of course, fictional but, as researchers in the BHF-funded Regenerative Medicine Centre at Imperial’s National Heart and Lung Institute, we are working to come up with improved ways to repair or regenerate heart tissues.

Why would we want to regenerate the heart?

Heart failure is when the heart cannot pump enough blood around the body, this can happen in two ways: in the first the heart is enlarged, weak and floppy and, in the second scar tissue forms on the heart (such as damage from a heart attack) making it stiff and inflexible. Currently the only cure for heart failure is a heart transplant.

There are over half a million people living with heart failure in the UK. To put that in perspective, Wembley Stadium in London holds 90,000 people and you could fill about 5.5 Wembley Stadiums with all of the people with heart failure in the UK.

Out of all of these people, only about 55–60 in each arena would have received a heart transplant last year (totalling 300–330). Scientists would therefore like to be able to reverse the damage, repairing the failing heart rather than relying on organ transplants.

Future heart failure treatments

Calcium is important for heart cell contraction, but in heart failure calcium handling is impaired. In normal cells, an increase in the calcium level inside the cell causes contraction; when excess calcium is removed from inside the cell relaxation occurs.

It is the removal of calcium from the inside of the cells that is impaired in heart failure, causing weaker contraction and poor relaxation (meaning the heart doesn’t beat very hard, and must rest longer in between beats).

Gene therapy, in which a gene to restore proper calcium handling is injected into a failing heart, is showing great promise and has already undergone several clinical trials. If we can improve the strength and improve the contraction of a person’s own heart, they may not need a transplant.

Scientists are currently hard at work to gain a greater understanding into the workings of these stem cell-derived heart cells and determine the best way to deliver or apply these cells to the heart to repair it.

Every day we are moving a step further towards achieving this goal thanks to funding from the BHF. So although it may feel like we are living in a world far removed from those in the Wolverine, Deadpool and The Fifth Element, we are moving closer to being able to repair damaged organs, removing the need for organ transplantation.

Meet the scientists and discover more about BHF research

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The Imperial National Heart and Lung Institute team are helping to spread the word about their BHF-funded research. They have put together a series of ‘Science In Store’ pop-up outreach events at the Ealing BHF Furniture and Electrical Shop (9–13 Broadway, Ealing, W13 9DA) on:

• Thursday 29th September (1–4 pm)
• Thursday 26 November (1–4 pm)
• Saturday 28 January (1–4 pm)

These events are completely free, no science knowledge needed. We hope to see you there.

 

This post has been adapted from the BHF article Can we create a real-life Deadpool? The regenerative medicine researchers making science fiction a reality and reproduced here with permission.

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Jennifer Furman

Jennifer Furman
National Heart & Lung Institute

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Email: press.office@imperial.ac.uk
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Sian Harding

Sian Harding
National Heart & Lung Institute

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Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 3009
Email: sian.harding@imperial.ac.uk

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Nicola Hellen

Nicola Hellen
National Heart & Lung Institute

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Email: press.office@imperial.ac.uk
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Marta Abreu Paiva

Marta Abreu Paiva
National Heart & Lung Institute

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Email: press.office@imperial.ac.uk
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