Seeking regenerative medicine therapies for the human heart is an important focus for numerous Gates Institute research members, working with the sobering fact that millions of Americans suffer heart attacks each year. The five-year survival rate for heart attack patients who subsequently suffer heart failure is only 50 percent, a number that has not changed for decades despite intensive research and promising investigations.

Kunhua Song, PhD, a Gates Institute member and an assistant professor at the CU School of Medicine, was awarded a Gates Institute Grubstake Award to develop a genetic therapy for the treatment of heart failure. Song is the first basic scientist within the Division of Cardiology’s entire translational research footprint to study stem cells as a tool in the translational research of heart disease. His recruitment was made possible through a generous matching gift from the Gates Frontiers Fund along with funds from the Division of Cardiology. According to Division of Cardiology Head Peter Buttrick MD, “We are very fortunate to have a young scientist of Dr. Song’s caliber joining our team.” Song and his team have discovered a way to regenerate healthy cardiac cells from the fibrotic tissue causing heart failure using a gene therapy approach.

Within the heart, there are at least two types of cells, fibroblasts and cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells). One of the causes leading to heart failure involves the irreversible loss of cardiomyocytes, which affects the ability of the heart to pump. While training in Dr. Eric Olson’s lab at the University of Texas Southwestern, Song published two landmark papers. One paper, published in Cell, described a novel, calcium-regulated signaling pathway that plays a critical role in the control of heart failure. Another paper, published in Nature, revealed a method for converting cardiac fibroblasts into new heart muscle cells. Recently, Song’s team in Colorado published a paper in Nature Communications, refining the technique. According to one of Dr. Song’s colleagues at CU Anschutz, Timothy A. McKinsey, PhD, “These findings, which have had a powerful impact on the regenerative medicine field, could lead to the development of new strategies to treat patients who have suffered from a heart attack.”

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