Prof. Thomas Eschenhagen receives ERC grant - 2.5 million Euros for heart research

Prof. Dr. Thomas Eschenhagen has been awarded with an “ERC Advanced Grant” by the European Research Council (ERC). The director of the Institute of Experimental Pharmacology and Toxicology, University Hospital Hamburg - Eppendorf (UKE) and chairman of the Board of the Directors of the German Centre for Cardiovascular Research (DZHK) receives 2.5 million Euros over the next five years for his research on artificial heart tissue. The “ERC Advanced Grant” promotes ambitious and pioneer research projects by outstanding top-level researchers.

With the research funds from the ERC grant Prof. Eschenhagen wants to develop an analytical method that determines an individual’s risk to suffer from heart failure.  “This is a big challenge”, says Prof. Eschenhagen. “Probably several thousand of the approximately 22.000 human genes play a role in the heart. We do know numerous genetic variants of these genes and we also know now that only certain mixtures of all these variants relevantly determine the disease risk.” An artificial, three-dimensional heart model can help detect the different variants and thus allow individual statements to be made. Therefore, the research project is named IndivuHeart – a blend of individual and heart.

For the development of the heart model the scientists need so called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS-cells) from which heart muscle cells can be artificially produced in a lab. At the Institute for Experimental Pharmacology and Toxicology, the working group of Prof. Dr. Arne Hansen initially takes skin cells from patients with hereditary heart disease. Using special procedures, the researchers transform these cells to iPS-cells from which they grow heart muscle cells eventually leading to three-dimensional, steady beating heart muscles. Prof. Eschenhagen: “With these artificial heart muscles that we compare with artificial heart muscles of healthy people, we study the consequences of genetic defects. In a next step we can then test drugs or other therapeutic options.”

As part of the project, Eschenhagen wants to improve the making of these 3D-models so that it runs widely automatically. “This is necessary in order to detect the smallest differences between healthy and sick people, between healthy and still healthy carriers of a possibly critical mutation. “This is a prerequisite for reliable predictions and will hopefully lead to the possibility to help single patients and their physicians with a treatment decision.”