Could a tiny fish lead the way when it comes to heart disease? The zebrafish is being studied by biomedical researchers to learn more about how hearts develop and function.
When a zebrafish's heart becomes damaged nature comes in and heals it. The same is not true for humans, but researchers are hoping that clues from the zebrafish can be applied for heart patients.
The zebrafish, native to India, has been used since the 1990s in research labs. The fish grow up and reproduce in just three months. More importantly they lay eggs that are very tiny. Those tiny eggs have a clear shell that quickly develop into translucent embryos giving researchers a clear look at vital organs, such as the heart.
Some of these embryos have malformed hearts that do not beat but they survive and continue to grow for several days. This growth is providing critical information to researchers. A human heart and a zebrafish heart have some common structures, they are both muscles designed to pump oxygen-carrying blood throughout the body. Both have chambers and valves that make sure that the blood goes the right direction. The hearts also pump in a rhythmic way.
One cardiac condition, familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), has already been researched using the tiny fish. In humans HCM is the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes. Through research it is now known that mutations in a gene that codes for the heart protein, troponin T, is responsible for 15 percent of these cases. Studies with the zebrafish found that when this protein is not produced two addition heart proteins are affected.
Currently the British Heart Foundation is examining the ways the tiny fish can mend its own broken heart. When a portion of the zebrafish's heart is removed it grows back in a matter of weeks. This research could in the future help those who have suffered a heart attack.
Already the researchers have discovered a heart protein that may play a vital role in the repairing of the fish's heart. It is possible in the future thymosine beta-4 could become the foundation of new heart repair treatments.