Cambridge team probes COVID-19 impact on the heart
University of Cambridge researchers are leveraging stem cell ‘heart-in-a-dish’ technology to study the effects of coronavirus on the critical organ.
The technology was originally devised to explore potential treatments for heart failure. Now the British Heart Foundation is funding the team to help understand how and why COVID-19 impacts the heart.
Dr Sanjay Sinha and his team will exploit their expertise in growing 2D and 3D heart tissue in the laboratory from human stem cells to study how the coronavirus attaches to heart muscle cells and how it affects their ability to contract and relax.
By understanding how COVID-19 may impair heart function, the team will then be able to investigate potential protective treatments.
Dr Sinha is also exploring whether the immune response from COVID-19 is responsible for damaging the heart. Molecules called cytokines are part of the immune system and when they’re in high amounts they can cause inflammation. COVID-19 has been associated with a ‘cytokine storm’ which can damage cells in the body.
To investigate this immune response on the heart, the team are obtaining blood samples from people with COVID-19 at a hospital in Cambridge.
The blood serum which contains the cytokines will be added onto their lab-grown 2D and 3D heart muscle cells to see if there is anything in the infected blood that has a toxic effect on the heart.
Dr Sinha said: “Through harnessing our existing ‘heart-in-a-dish’ techniques we’re in a prime position to investigate how and why COVID-19 can have such a devastating impact on the heart.
“This new understanding should provide us with a test bed for screening drugs to protect the hearts of people with COVID-19.”
Professor Metin Avkiran, BHF’s Associate Medical Director, added: “We’re committed to supporting the fight against COVID-19. Many of our researchers, like Dr Sinha at the BHF Centre of Research Excellence in Cambridge, are applying their expertise to understanding the harmful and potentially deadly relationship between COVID-19 and the cardiovascular system.
“With increasing evidence that people with severe COVID-19 may suffer heart damage it is vital to understand if, and how, the coronavirus attacks heart muscle as a first step to finding new treatments.
“Pioneering research such as this could inform how we care for people who develop COVID-19 when they’re unwell and in their long-term recovery.”