Grow-your-own pacemakers are coming (eventually)

Researchers at Cedars Sinai Heart Institute in L.A. have developed a biological pacemaker that’s powered by nothing more than cells. Conventional pacemakers are implanted into the chest and use electrical impulses to regulate the heartbeat. But this new development uses gene therapy to turn heart cells into more specialist cells designed to keep the heart beating at a steady rate. These cells are injected into the body and perform the same function as a pacemaker but without the need for surgery or any electronic components.

However, the research is still in its early stages. So far, the scientists, led by Dr Eduardo Marban, have only tested the treatment on animals, injecting the gene into pigs that have an abnormally slow heartbeat. In their new study, published in Science Translational Medicine, they say that these cells, which formed a clump around the size of a peppercorn, effectively acted as a pacemaker for two weeks.

Obviously more trials are needed before the technique can be used on humans, but it could eventually replace traditional treatments. In the meantime, pacemaker technology is getting increasingly sophisticated. Last month, the smallest pacemaker in the world was inserted into a patient in the UK for the first time as part of a clinical trial. The Micra Transcatheter Pacing System is just 26mm long and weighs 2g, a tenth the size of usual models and not much larger than an antibiotic tablet. It’s also revolutionary for being inserted directly into the heart.

Pacemakers are traditionally placed under the skin in the chest and connected to the heart by a lead. This lead can wear or become dislodged over time, meaning further surgery is needed. But the Micra Transcatheter Pacing System is inserted via a catheter from the groin, making the procedure far less invasive and with a reduced risk of infection.

Image via University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley