News of Note—Rapidly regenerating heart muscle; a genetic link between ALS and dementia

Neon heart
Columbia University scientists have figured out how to recreate and speed up the development of functioning human heart muscle using stem cells. (Connor Wells/Unsplash)

Engineers grow heart muscle from stem cells in 1 month

Scientists have long been able to grow heart muscle from stem cells extracted from blood, but the resulting tissues lacked so many critical cardiac functions that they weren’t really that useful for medical researchers. So scientists at Columbia University decided to take a different approach, mimicking the normal process of heart development while at the same time compressing it from nine months to one. They took blood-derived human induced pluripotent stem cells, transformed them into beating cardiomyocytes, and then encapsulated them in hydrogel. Then they used electromechanical signals to prompt the cells to contract—much like what happens during fetal development, only faster. After four weeks, the resulting tissue closely resembled real human heart muscle, they reported in the journal Nature. (Release)

Scientists discover genetic link between ALS and dementia

A new analysis of 124,876 individuals of European descent has uncovered a genetic variant that’s associated with both amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). The genetic abnormality affects the production of BNIP1, a brain protein that promotes the normal development and functioning of neurons. People with FTD often have symptoms similar to the early stages of ALS, including weakness and loss of coordination, but the two diseases were previously believed to be unrelated. The discovery of the link, which was made by researchers from UC San Francisco and Washington University, advances the understanding of how the two diseases develop and could lead to new treatment strategies, they believe. The research was published in JAMA Neurology. (Release)

Lyme discovery could inspire new treatments

A veterinarian at the University of Maryland has discovered a key mechanism that the bacteria that causes Lyme disease uses to disable its victims’ innate immune responses. The finding may help explain why many people who are successfully treated for Lyme disease suffer relapses within the first year following traditional antibiotic treatment. The Lyme-causing bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, which is spread by ticks, uses the newly discovered protein to beat back the first wave of immune response. But even if the protein is depleted, the infection can recur several weeks later, according to the research, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The discovery could point to new treatment strategies, not only for Lyme but for other tick-borne diseases, the researchers believe. (Release)