Researchers use virus to create a biological pacemaker

New technique avoids the 'problems' of implantable pacemakers, researchers say

Scientists have created a biological pacemaker by infecting an arrhythmic heart with a virus that turns specialized cardiac muscle cells into cells that control heartbeat.

Writing in Nature Biotechnology, Hee Cheol Cho of the Cedars Sinai Heart Institute and colleagues used a virus to infect arrhythmic guinea pigs' cardiac muscle cells with a specific gene—Tbx18—which is typically active when the embryo's pacemaker cells begin to form.

Soon after the heart cells became infected, they began to shrink, taper off, and acquire the "distinctive features of pacemaker cells," the authors wrote.

Of the seven arrhythmic guinea pigs that were infected in the study, five developed heartbeats that originated from new, biological pacemakers.

Although more testing is required to determine if the technique would work on humans, Cho is confident in the technique's promise.

"Complications such as displacement, breakage, entanglement of the leads are not uncommon and could be catastrophic, the incidence of devices with bacterial infection keeps going up and, for pediatric patients, the device does not 'grow' with the patient," Cho says.

"All these problems could be solved by a biological pacemaker," she says (Gallagher, BBC News, 12/16).

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