News Release

Heart attack study could change the game in regenerative medicine

The breakthrough findings solve a known problem for scientists working on cellular reprogramming, one of the most promising areas of regenerative medicine

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Sanford Burnham Prebys

Alexandre Colas, Ph.D.

image: Alexandre Colas, Ph.D. view more 

Credit: Sanford Burnham Prebys

LA JOLLA, CALIF. Mar 29, 2023 - Sanford Burnham Prebys researchers have identified a group of proteins that could be the secret to cellular reprogramming, an emerging approach in regenerative medicine in which scientists transform cells to repair damaged or injured body tissues. The researchers were able to reprogram damaged heart cells to repair heart injuries in mice following a heart attack. The findings, which appear in the journal Nature Communications, could one day transform the way we treat a variety of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s and neuromuscular diseases.

“Even if a person survives a heart attack, there could still be long-term damage to the heart that increases the risk of heart problems down the line,” says lead author Alexandre Colas, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Development, Aging and Regeneration Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys. “Helping the heart heal after injury is an important medical need in its own right, but these findings also pave the way for wider applications of cell reprogramming in medicine.”

Even though each of our cells has the same number of genes—approximately 20,000—cells can select which genes to “turn on” and “turn off” to change what they look like and what they do. This is the foundation of cellular reprogramming.

“Cellular reprogramming could, in theory, allow us to control the activity and appearance of any cell,” says Colas. “This concept has huge implications in terms of helping the body regenerate itself, but barriers to reprogramming mechanisms have prevented the science from moving from the lab to the clinic.” 

The researchers identified a group of four proteins, named AJSZ, that help solve this problem. 
“By blocking the activity of these proteins, we were able to reduce scarring on the heart and induce a 50% improvement in overall heart function in mice that have undergone a heart attack,” says Colas. 

Although the researchers were primarily focused on heart cells, they determined that AJSZ is universal to all cell types. This suggests that targeting AJSZ could be a promising treatment approach for a variety of human diseases.

“This is helping us solve a very big problem that a lot of researchers are interested in,” says Colas. “Even more important, this breakthrough is a significant step forward on our way to turning these promising biological concepts into real treatments.”

The next steps in translating their discovery into a potential treatment is to explore different ways of blocking the function of the AJSZ proteins. According to Colas, the most promising option would be to use a small molecule drug to block the activity of AJSZ. 

“We need to find a way to inhibit these proteins in a way we can control to make sure we are only reprogramming the cells that need it,” says Colas. “We will be screening for drugs that can help us inhibit these proteins in a controlled and selective manner in the coming months.”


Additional authors of the study include Maria A. Missinato, Michaela Lynott, Michael S. Yu, Anaïs Kervadec, Yu-Ling Chan, Christopher Lee, Prashila Amatya, Hiroshi Tanaka, Chun-Teng Huang, Pier Lorenzo Puri, Peter D. Adams and Alessandra Sacco, Sanford Burnham Prebys; Sean Murphy, Suraj Kannan, Chulan Kwon and Peter Andersen, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and Li Qian, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The study was supported by grants from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (DISC2-10110), the National Institutes of Health (R01 HL153645, R01 HL148827, R01 HL149992, R01 AG071464), and Sanford Burnham Prebys institutional support to Alexandre Colas. 

The study’s DOI is 10.1038/s41467-023-37256-8.

About Sanford Burnham Prebys

Sanford Burnham Prebys is an independent biomedical research institute dedicated to understanding human biology and disease and advancing scientific discoveries to profoundly impact human health. For more than 45 years, our research has produced breakthroughs in cancer, neuroscience, immunology and children’s diseases, and is anchored by our NCI-designated Cancer Center and advanced drug discovery capabilities. For more information, visit us at or on Facebook and on Twitter @SBPdiscovery.

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