Using Light to Restore Healthy Heartbeats

August 28, 2013
Computer-generated illustration

This computer-generated illustration shows how a cell would be able to convert light energy into an electric kick that triggers a healthy heartbeat. (Graphic by Patrick M. Boyle, Trayanova Laboratory)

When a beating heart slips into an irregular, life-threatening rhythm, the treatment is well known: deliver a burst of electric current from a pacemaker or defibrillator. But because the electricity itself can cause serious side-effects such as tissue damage, a Johns Hopkins-led research team wants to replace these jolts with a kinder, gentler remedy: light.

In a paper published Aug. 28 in the online journal Nature Communications, five biomedical engineers from Johns Hopkins and Stony Brook universities described their plan to use biological lab data and an intricate computer model to devise a better way to heal ailing hearts.

“We think it’s possible to use light to reshape the behavior of the heart without blasting it,” says the project’s supervisor, Natalia Trayanova, the Murray B. Sachs Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins. Patrick M. Boyle, a postdoctoral fellow in Trayanova’s lab is lead author on the Nature Communications paper. “The most promising thing about having a digital framework that is so accurate and reliable is that we can anticipate which experiments are really worth doing to move this technology along more quickly,” says Boyle.

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