Dr. Joseph Woo loves photosynthesis. And for good reason: Plants may not be as cute as pandas, but it’s thanks to their chemical alchemy that all of us here on Earth are alive and breathing. From microscopic phytoplankton to towering redwoods, these superheroes keep us alive by taking in carbon dioxide and sunlight, then miraculously producing oxygen and sugar.
But there’s another reason that Dr. Woo loves photosynthesis. When you have a heart attack, there are two things your heart needs immediately to start repairing its damaged tissue: oxygen and sugar. Now Dr. Woo, a professor and heart surgeon at Stanford University, thinks he’s found a way to use some of our tiniest photosynthesizing friends to help our hearts heal themselves.
In a study published this week in Science Advances, Dr. Woo and his team show how they successfully replaced blood with microscopic cyanobacteria, plant-like organisms that also use photosynthesis. By co-opting the process to help heal damaged heart tissue, the team was able to protect rats from deadly heart failure. Fixing an ailing heart, it seems, may be as simple as shining a light on the situation.
Heart attacks strike 735,000 Americans each year, and heart disease is the number one killer worldwide. A heart attack happens when something blocks blood flow to the heart, cutting off oxygen from reaching this crucial muscle. For cardiologists, the challenge for preventing subsequent heart failure is to rapidly supply damaged heart tissues with oxygen and nutrients. But “if you look at nature, photosynthesis answers that question,” says Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford Medicine and lead author on the study.
If a damaged heart were…