Researchers have identified a gene in our bodies that dictates the regenerative function of the heart when it succumbs to injuries, which could potentially lead them to find heart regeneration treatments for damage caused by heart attacks.

In the study, available online in Nature, the investigators demonstrated the regulatory and repair responses of a heart following injuries such as heart attacks or heart failures.

"We found that the activity of the Meis1 gene increases significantly in heart cells soon after birth, right around the time heart muscle cells stop dividing," said Hesham Sadek, senior author and assistant professor of internal medicine in the division of cardiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "Based on this observation we asked a simple question: If the Meis1 gene is deleted from the heart, will heart cells continue to divide through adulthood?"

Researchers found out that yes, they do. They deleted the Meis1 gene in a newborn mouse that had heart damage, which later exhibited repairs to its heart. In adult mice, it also lead to the re-activation of the renewal process.

"Meis1 is a transcription factor, which acts like a software program that has the ability to control the function of other genes," Sadek said. "In this case, we found that Meis1 controls several genes that normally act as brakes on cell division."

That means removing the gene promotes cell division, explaining why the heart was able to continue repairing. By uncovering this finding, researchers hope for a break in finding therapies for adult heart damage or alternatives to replacing impaired hearts.

"As such, Meis1 could possibly be used as an on/off switch for making adult heart cells divide. If done successfully, this ability could introduce a new era in treatment for heart failure," Sadek added.

The American Heart Association found that nearly 6 million Americans have heart failure, which is when the heart is incapable of pumping blood and oxygen to other organs in the body. Heart failure could be treated by making changes to lifestyle, taking medications such as blood thinners or undergoing surgery with or without implantable devices, among other options.