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Engineers aim to use light to cure sick hearts

Doctors may one day be able to revive ailing hearts using light instead of defibrillators that send massive amounts of electricity into people’s body.


Biomedical engineers from Johns Hopkins and Stony Brook Universities are devising a method to use light to help patients with heart issues regain stability.  The method goes hand-in-hand with optogenetics, a field that has been around for just around ten years.  In this particular field of research, scientists utilize light-responsive proteins (opsins) to electrically stimulate targeted areas of a cell.  The light-induced stimulation is reportedly much stressful on the body than traditional external defibrillator zaps.

“Applying electricity to the heart has its drawbacks,” said Natalia Trayanova, project supervisor and professor at John Hopkins.  “When we use defibrillators, it’s like blasting open a door because we don’t have the key.  It applies too much force and too little finesse.  We want to control this treatment in a more intelligent way.  We think it’s possible to use light to reshape the behavior of the heart without blasting it.”

Currently, the research is still in its modeling stage where a highly developed computer simulation is used to test the researchers’ techniques.  The next step is for the team to insert opsins into real heart tissues to conduct tests on something more organic.

“One of the great things about using light is that it can be directed at very specific areas.  It also involves very little energy.  In many cases, it’s less harmful and more efficient than electricity,” said Patrick Boyle, a postdoctoral fellow in Trayanova’s lab.

Source: John Hopkins University

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