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Bonn Researchers Use Light to Make the Heart Stumble

Method allows for completely new approaches to researching dangerous arrhythmia

Scientists at the University of Bonn have altered cardiac muscle cells to make them controllable with light. They were thus able to  use directed light to cause conditions such as arrhythmia in genetically modified mice. The method opens up completely new possibilities for researching the development of such arrhythmias. The study will be published in the upcoming edition of “Nature Methods”. From October 3rd, it will be available on-line (doi: 10.1038/nmeth.1512).

Tobias Brügmann and his colleagues from the University of Bonn’s Institute of Physiology I used a so-called “channelrhodopsin” for their experiments, which is a type of light sensor. At the same time, it can act as an ion channel in the cell membrane. When stimulated with blue light, this channel opens, and positive ions flow into the cell. This causes a change in the cell membrane’s pressure, which stimulates cardiac muscle cells to contract.

“We have genetically modified mice to make them express channelrhodopsin in the heart muscle,” explains Professor Dr. Bernd Fleischmann of the Institute for Physiology I. “That allowed us to change the electric potential of the mouse heart at will, enabling us to selectively produce conditions such as arrhythmia of the atrium or the ventricle.“

These types of arrhythmia - physicians also call them ventricular fibrillation - are among the most common causes of death after a heart attack. They develop when large quantities of cardiac cells die and are replaced with connective tissue. “This scar tissue has a different electrical activity than the healthy heart muscle,” says the leader of the study, Professor Dr. Philipp Sasse. “And that makes the heart stumble.”

But why is that so? Normally, electric impulses spread across the heart from a natural pacemaker. This happens in a temporally and spatially tightly controlled manner, creating a closely coordinated contraction.  However, if entire muscle areas decouple electrically, this mechanism no longer works: all of a sudden, certain parts of the heart pulse at their own rhythm. This causes the blood flow to come to a near-standstill.

The scientists from Bonn can now trigger this decoupling through photostimulation. They can target just a few cells at a time or direct  larger areas of the heart, allowing them to find out, for instance,  which areas of the hollow muscle are especially sensitive to electric  disruptions.

But why not simply stimulate the heart muscle with electrodes in order to make the heart lose its rhythm? “That can be done as well,” says Professor Sasse. “ But this method has unwanted side effects: if the electric stimulation lasts longer than a few milliseconds, toxic gases are produced, and the pH value changes.”

The consequences of a heart attack, which leads to permanent tissue damage, can of course only be studied in a very limited form when using short-term electric stimulation. Photostimulation is much more suitable: the cells will even withstand stimulations of several minutes at a time without problems.

Using channelrhodopsin in medical research is not fundamentally new, although so far it has mainly been used in neuroscience. For instance, scientists can use these light channels to direct the behavior of flies and mice - with nothing but blue light.

Contact information:
Assistant Professor Dr. Philipp Sasse
Institute for Physiology I
Life&Brain-Center at the University of Bonn
Telephone: +49 (228) 6885-212
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Professor Dr. Bernd K. Fleischmann
Institute for Physiology I
Life&Brain-Center at the University of Bonn
Telephone: +49 (228) 6885-200
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