By Amy E. Hamaker
Human heart tissue, unlike many other tissues in the body, has an extremely limited ability to regenerate, which is why coronary disease can be so deadly. A recent $75,000 gift from the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation is helping researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of USC better understand the limitations of adult heart cells and develop targets for improved regeneration through the use of embryonic heart cells.
“The heart needs to maintain output,” explained Henry Sucov, interim director and associate professor of the Departments of Cell and Neurobiology and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, whose project on adult cardiac muscle stem cells is the beneficiary of the gift. “If you’ve lost heart muscle cells, then the rest of the heart will compensate—but only up to a point. After that, it leads to decompensated heart failure, the leading cause of death in the Western world.
“In the lab, we’ve been studying what goes on during fetal heart development—heart muscle cells divide actively, even as they’re beating,” he continued. “Our approach is to isolate a rare population of cells in the adult heart that share some of the properties of embryonic heart muscle cells. We can test the hypothesis that these cells that resemble the embryonic heart cells are the ones that retain the ability to divide and potentially regenerate heart muscle. If so, then we have a target to increase or improve their regenerative capacity in an injured adult patient.”
According to Sucov, experimental work so far has been done with mice, but the biology between mice and human are very similar.
“The Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation’s support of the Keck School of Medicine of USC dates back several decades. Dr. Sucov's work underscores the importance of investing in basic research as a means to understanding and improving the human condition,” said Janna Beling, executive vice president for the foundation. “With this gift, we’re making an investment in leading-edge medical research that will enhance life and health.”
“The concept that a population of cells with regenerative ability exist in the adult heart is controversial, and much of the biology is unknown,” said Sucov. “This can make projects like ours difficult to get funded. Having the Borchard Foundation to initiate these studies is crucial.”
Incorporated in 1978, the Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation promotes research, education, social justice and the arts, and aims to improve the human condition. To this end, the foundation makes grants to non-profit organizations located primarily in California, and have been great supporters of Southern California universities. Willard Beling, a past president of the Borchard Foundation who died in 2009 of congestive heart failure, was a former USC professor of International Relations.