Researchers in New York have identified a mechanism that makes it possible for heart muscle cells to beat and that could one day make mechanical switches easier to use.
The study, led by Dr. Anil Srivastava, a professor of biomedical engineering and engineering science, was published today in Nature Communications.
“If we can learn to make this work, then it could open up a lot of new applications,” Srivas said.
“For example, it could be used to design a robotic heart that’s responsive to electrical signals, so it can respond to a heart monitor.”
A mechanical heart, also known as a heart-lung machine, is an artificial organ that is used in treating patients with certain heart diseases.
A heart-like organ is attached to a mechanical pump that delivers electrical signals to the muscles, and it is attached with a thin plastic membrane called a membrane coiled around the pump.
The new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, shows that the mechanosensitive ion channels (mikosins) that make up these channels can be made to work in a similar way to the way an organ cell is able to work.
These channels are also sensitive to chemical changes that occur in the surrounding environment, making it possible to tune them to respond to specific chemicals, the authors wrote.
“This allows us to make mechanical organs that have a much more sophisticated and responsive function,” Sravastava said.
Srivas has previously demonstrated that mechanical organs can respond in the same way as an organ in a human body, and he has been working on this work for years.
The researchers found that they could make the channels sensitive to the presence of specific chemicals called chemical coenzymes that can activate the mikosin-like channels.
When the mikein channels are active, they send a voltage to the muscle cells, which in turn trigger the muscle fibers to contract and pump out blood.
The cells can respond by releasing an enzyme that turns the chemical coenoside dipeptide A (CCA) into a protein called CCK, which can then help the muscles respond to electrical pulses.
The discovery of this enzyme pathway, Srivams says, is “the first step towards understanding the complex interactions between a mechanical organ and its environment.”
The research team’s next step is to figure out whether the channels can also be sensitive to other chemicals in the environment that can be altered in the presence or absence of mechanical stimuli.
If so, the researchers hope to develop a mechanical heart that can respond differently depending on the presence and absence of the chemical cues.
Sravastavas says the findings may also help to develop new ways to treat heart failure.
The research team has been exploring the possibility of using the same chemical pathway to generate mechanical heart valves that could be able to pump blood in and out of the heart.