Cardiac arrhythmia is a problem with the rate of heart beat that currently affects 4 million Americans. During arrhythmia, the heart may beat too fast, too slow, or have an obvious irregular rhythm. In some cases, this heart condition may be life-threatening with the ability to damage the brain, heart, and other organs due to the lack of blood flow.
Oscar Abilez, a cardiovascular physician at Stanford University has developed the solution to this condition: light. With his team, he is working to create a new biological pacemaker that is able to control the heart with light. The first phase of his research involves optogenetics. This uses techniques from both optics and genetics to control the activity of individual neurons in living tissue. In 2002, German scientists were able to isolate the genes for the proteins called opsins. Before this discovery, algae and few other organisms were the only know carriers of light sensitive cells. These opsins, however, are responsible for cells’ light sensitivity in humans and modify the genetic code of other cells so that they, too, would produce these opsins.
The next phase of his research involves stem cells. Oscar Abilez hopes to convert the stem cells light-sensitive cardiomyocytes from a person who is suffering from this condition. These cells that make up the muscle tissue in the heart would be able to be “grafted” onto a person’s heart. This would then ideally carry out Abilez’s vision, which he hopes will be achieved in the next decade or so, allowing physicians to control the whole heart’s rhythm using light.