Heart disease: How the tiny zebrafish are helping to find a cure

  • Watch the video report by ITV Meridian's Mel Bloor

Every year in the UK, there are more than 100,000 hospital admissions due to heart attacks - that's one every five minutes. 

Since launching in 1961, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has helped to halve annual deaths from heart and circulatory diseases, however, these conditions still kill around one in four people. 

The charity, which turns 60 this year, is hoping its latest research will provide a clue to curing heart disease.

At the BHF's Centre of Research Excellence in Oxford, scientists are on the cusp of a breakthrough discovery - thanks to zebrafish and their ability to repair their own hearts.

An adult Zebrafish can repair its own heart if it is damaged

People who survive a heart attack may have heart tissue damage that can lead to debilitating heart failure.

In humans, the heart cannot repair itself. But zebrafish can repair their hearts - heart muscle cells near the damaged area lose their muscle properties and revert back to stem cells, which can repair the heart tissue.

Scientists know that a protein called Mef2 is needed to turn zebrafish stem cells into heart muscle cells.

They believe that zebrafish muscle cells near wounds are able to turn Mef2 on and off – turning Mef2 off to turn the cells back to stem cells, then turning it back on so they can become heart muscle cells to repair the heart. BHF researchers are looking to see if controlling Mef 2 might hold the key to heart muscle repair in humans.

  • Professor Paul Riley, British Heart Foundation:

The British Heart Foundation funds over £100m of new research, like the zebrafish project, every year.

Over the past six decades, it has helped revolutionise treatments for heart and circulatory diseases, funding the first UK heart transplant, pacemakers and genetic testing for inherited heart conditions.

But in the wake of the pandemic, future research is at risk.

The charity's hope is that, through its research, it will one day find a cure for heart disease.

The tiny zebrafish could play a big part in achieving that goal.

For more information about the British Heart Foundation, please click here.