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Researchers envision switching a heart beat on and off with light

Researchers envision switching a heart beat on and off with light

A team of Stanford University scientists are currently working to develop a novel biological pacemaker that uses stem cells and optogenetics to control the human heart with light. Credit: Thinkstock

With a few flicks of a light switch—on-off-on-off—Stanford University’s Oscar Abilez is one step closer to changing the lives of millions.

Why? Because as a focused speck of light turns on and off in Abilez’s lab, a cluster of begins to expand and contract. He demonstrates that he can control the rhythm of a heart using just light.

Currently, 4 million Americans suffer from some degree of , wherein a person’s heart beats too slowly, too quickly or at irregular intervals. Such can cause a shortness of breath, fainting and, in worst-case scenarios, death.

The good news is devices like and defibrillators allow doctors to introduce electrical signals to set patients’ hearts at regularly timed beats. But these small  come with risks.

“It’s like using a cannon to kill an ant,” says Leon Esterowitz, director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for Engineering’s Biophotonics program, which funds this research through the Living Matter Lab at Stanford, under the direction of Ellen Kuhl, a professor of engineering at Stanford.

Patients must undergo invasive surgical procedures to permanently implant the devices, which can cause cardiac . There are other challenges too, such as lifestyle limitations and the occasional battery malfunction.

Doctors and patients agree there must be a better solution.

“I think progress has to happen,” says Ryan Aleong, a leading University of Colorado Denver cardiologist who diagnoses and treats the heart’s electrical irregularities. “I think we all realize there’s going to be a move for more translational medicine to solve some of these problems.”

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