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The Making of Medicine

Science Can Take Strange Turns

Case in point: A team of our kidney researchers has made a surprising discovery about how the heart forms. They’ve found that the heart’s inner lining is produced by the same stem cells that produce blood. So these busy little multitaskers make both the blood and part of the organ that will pump it.

The research team, including Yan Hu, PhD, (above left) and lead researcher Maria Luisa S. Sequeira-Lopez, MD, (above right) was seeking to understand how our kidneys develop when they noticed that deleting a certain gene caused heart problems in lab mice. That led them to look more closely at the heart — an area far outside their comfort zone, according to Dr. Sequeira-Lopez, of our Child Health Research Center. But their inquisitiveness paid dividends: In addition to making the discovery about how the heart forms, they identified a gene responsible for a deadly heart condition called ventricular non-compaction cardiomyopathy.

Their findings come as unexpected news even for scientists who specialize in the development of the heart. “For a long time, scientists believed that each organ developed independently of other organs, and the heart developed from certain stem cells and blood developed from blood stem cells,” explained researcher Brian C. Belyea, MD, of the UVA Children’s Hospital. “A number of studies done in this lab and others, including this work, shows that there’s much more plasticity in these precursor cells. What we found is that cardiac precursor cells that are present in the embryonic heart do indeed give rise to components of the heart in adults but also give rise to the blood cells.”

That’s a neat thing about science: You never know where it will lead.

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