College of Medicine develops new gene therapy for heart

A new gene therapy technique that responds to oxygen-depleted heart muscle is being developed at USF’s College of Medicine.

USF vice president for research and professor of physiology and biophysics Michael Ian Phillips, along with Yao Liang Tangand, and their team of researchers at the College of Medicine and All Children’s Hospital, is working to develop an oxygen-sensitive gene therapy that may prevent against future heart attacks if administered intravenously to individuals experiencing a heart attack.

According to Phillips, during a heart attack, the heart arteries that are clogged become oxygen-starved, dropping the oxygen level drastically. This loss of oxygen can cause the muscle tissue to die and turn into scar tissue. This scar tissue can block blood and oxygen flow to the heart, stimulating a second or third attack.

“The gene therapy approach will switch on, allowing blood and oxygen flow when it is needed, then off when sufficient levels are obtained,” said Phillips.

When it is used on humans, the intravenous therapy will be administered during a heart attack to prevent the cells from dying and, in turn, forming scar tissue that could ultimately lead to another attack, Phillips explained.

According to Phillips, all of the experimentation on the test mice was done at USF. Studies showed that this gene therapy, which was administered to mice an hour following a heart attack, protected heart muscle cells from further injury. Ten days following the heart attacks, the mice that received the gene therapy showed less scar tissue and a better recovery of the heart pumping function than the mice who did not receive the therapy.

This method does not prevent the heart attack from occurring, said Phillips; however, it is a safe alternative to bypass surgery.

As of now, Phillips and his team are working on a way of using stem cells to repair already damaged scar tissue after a heart attack.

“If a patient is at high risk for a heart attack, taking this therapy as a preventive measure would be okay,” said Phillips.

Phillips said he is hoping it will be available to the public soon. “The more attention the study gets, the more likely it will get a clinical trial.”