Year 1

Heart disease is a leading cause of mortality. The underlying pathology is typically loss of heart muscle cells that leads to heart failure. Because heart muscle has little or no regenerative capacity after birth, current therapeutic approaches are limited for the over 5 million Americans who suffer from heart failure. Our recent findings regarding direct reprogramming of a type of structural cell of the heart, called fibroblasts, into cardiac muscle-like cells using just three genes offers a novel approach to achieving cardiac regeneration. 50% of cells in the human heart are cardiac fibroblasts, providing a potential source of new heart muscle cells for regenerative therapy. We simulated a heart attack in mice by blocking the coronary artery, and have been able to reprogram existing mouse cardiac fibroblasts into new muscle by delivering the three genes into the heart. We found a significant reduction in scar size and an improvement in cardiac function that persists after injury. The reprogramming of cells in the intact organ was more complete than in cells in a dish. We now identified a combination of factors that reprogram human and pig cardiac fibroblasts and are optimizing a gene therapy approach to introduce cardiac reprogramming genes into the heart of pigs. In a pig model of cardiac injury, these factors were able to convert non-muscle cells into new muscle in the area of injury. We also found a viral vector that can preferentially infect the fibroblasts compare to the muscle cells. We are now in a position to test for functional improvement in pigs.