Researchers discover heart repair protein

Researchers from the University California, San Diego, have been able to more than double the life span of fruit flies by tweaking genes in their hearts, an advance that could improve longevity in humans.

The tiny insects share 82 per cent of the heart genes found in people, which make them a useful model organism.

Bioengineer Adam Engler and his team genetically altered fruit flies so that they would produce offspring with more vinculin in their hearts.

Vinculin, a protein plays a key role in the healthy contraction of heart muscles. The experiment allowed most of the insects to live for 77 days instead of 35, which was the median for fruit flies.

Science Translational Medicine published the results yesterday, which are part of a larger project that examined which heart proteins increased in monkeys, rats and flies over time, and possible ways to exploit those changes.

''By sustaining the amount of vinculin, the fruit flies' hearts beat better for a longer period of time,'' says Engler, whose work was supported by the National Institutes of Health. ''But we limited this to the heart to show that small changes in this protein can have a massive impact on lifespan.''

According to experts, the results of the study could lead to new drugs to repair the damage of heart failure.

The human heart, unlike other organs does not make many new cells over a lifetime and yet still generates billions of beats as it grows old.

The new findings about the role of vinculin, according to researchers, could pave the way to treatments that extend the lives of patients afflicted by heart failure.

Around 900,000 people in the UK suffer from heart failure, which occurs when the heart is unable to pump blood around the body at the right pressure.

It usually occurs due to the heart muscle becoming too weak or stiff to work properly. Among the symptoms are shortness of breath; fatigue; swollen ankles; rapid heartbeat; wheezing and lack of appetite.

Researchers measured levels of vinculin in the heart muscle of adult and aging fruitflies, rats and monkeys with age suggesting that the protein was rising to keep the heart beating.

According to Engler, Vinculin appeared to be at the heart of a natural defence mechanism that reinforced the ageing heart cell and helped it better sense and respond to age-related changes.