Zebra danios could mend a broken heart

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The humble Zebra danio, Danio rerio, is causing a huge stir in the media world after researchers have discovered a gene which may hold the secret to treating heart disease.

Back in 2002 scientists from Boston, US first discovered that zebrafish have a protein which allows them to regenerate cardiac muscle within two months of 20% of the muscle being removed. It is hoped that this astonishing ability will lead to the discovery of new drugs and treatments that might allow the human heart to heal itself after being damaged during a heart attack.

Why is this making the news nine years on? On Monday Professor Peter Weissberg, the medical director of the British Heart Foundation announced a BHF initiative dubbed the "Mending Broken Hearts Project" which will mean an extra £50 million over the next five years for in depth studies on developments in regenerative medicine  such as the study into the innate repair mechanisms of the Zebra danio.

"Scientifically, mending human hearts is an achievable goal and we really could make recovering from a heart attack as simple as getting over a broken leg."

Heart failure is becoming a growing trend in the UK. Back in 1961 an estimated 100,000 people suffered heart failure, but an ageing and increasingly unhealthy population means that today this figure is more than 750,000.

There are several different genes thought to be involved in the regeneration of the Zebra danio's heart but Professor Paul Riley of the Institute of Child Health, University College London, thinks that a protein molecule called thymosine beta-4 may become the basis of a new heart-repair drug. The protein appears to control the growth of the epicardium membrane, which surrounds the heart, so that it triggers the formation of new cardiac tissue and blood vessels.

These fish are often used as a model organism for studies into vertebrate development and gene expression as they reach adulthood in just three-four months. They are particularly ideal for heart studies as they are transparent in early life and their hearts develop within 12 hours.