How stem cells know the right way to make a heart . And what goes wrong when they don’t

Gladstone scientists Deepak Srivastava (left), Yvanka De Soysa (center), and Casey Gifford (right) publish a complete catalog of the cells involved in heart development.

The invention of GPS navigation systems has made finding your way around so much easier, providing simple instructions on how to get from point A to point B. Now, a new study shows that our bodies have their own internal navigation system that helps stem cells know where to go, and when, in order to build a human heart. And the study also shows what can go wrong when even a few cells fail to follow directions.

In this CIRM-supported study, a team of researchers at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, used a new technique called single cell RNA sequencing to study what happens in a developing heart. Single cell RNA sequencing basically takes a snapshot photo of all the gene activity in a single cell at one precise moment. Using this the researchers were able to follow the activity of tens of thousands of cells as a human heart was being formed.

In a story in Science and Research Technology News, Casey Gifford, a senior author on the study, said this approach helps pinpoint genetic variants that might be causing problems.

“This sequencing technique allowed us to see all the different types of cells present at various stages of heart development and helped us identify which genes are activated and suppressed along the way. We were not only able to uncover the existence of unknown cell types, but we also gained a better understanding of the function and behavior of individual cells—information we could never access before.”

Then they partnered with a team at Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) of the University of Luxembourg which ran a computational analysis to identify which genes were involved in creating different cell types. This highlighted one specific gene, called Hand2, that controls the activity of thousands of other genes. They found that a lack of Hand2 in mice led to an inability to form one of the heart’s chambers, which in turn led to impaired blood flow to the lungs. The embryo was creating the cells needed to form the chamber, but not a critical pathway that would allow those cells to get where they were needed when they were needed.

Gifford says this has given us a deeper insight into how cells are formed, knowledge we didn’t have before.

“Single-cell technologies can inform us about how organs form in ways we couldn’t understand before and can provide the underlying cause of disease associated with genetic variations. We revealed subtle differences in very, very small subsets of cells that actually have catastrophic consequences and could easily have been overlooked in the past. This is the first step toward devising new therapies.”

These therapies are needed to help treat congenital heart defects, which are the most common and deadly birth defects. There are more than 2.5 million Americans with these defects. Deepak Srivastava, President of Gladstone and the leader of the study, said the knowledge gained in this study could help developed strategies to help address that.

“We’re beginning to see the long-term consequences in adults, and right now, we don’t really have any way to treat them. My hope is that if we can understand the genetic causes and the cell types affected, we could potentially intervene soon after birth to prevent the worsening of their state over time.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

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