Guinea Pigs Set the Pace for Genetic Science

Originally Published MDDI October 2002NEWS & ANALYSISGuinea Pigs Set the Pace for Genetic Science

October 1, 2002

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Guinea Pigs Set the Pace for Genetic Science

Originally Published MDDI October 2002


The hearts of some Johns Hopkins University guinea-pig test subjects may hold the secret to creating biologic pacemakers for humans. The September 12 issue of Nature reports that scientists are using gene therapy to transform a small number of guinea pig heart cells into specialized pacing cells. In the experiment, the animals' heart cells fired rhythmically when the scientists genetically altered the balance of potassium inside those cells.

When they're functioning normally, the heart's pacing cells make the organ beat regularly by stimulating other cells to contract. If these specialized cells die or malfunction, however, an implanted electronic pacemaker is required to keep the heartbeat going. Currently, about 250,000 electronic pacemakers are implanted in patients annually in the United States.

The so-called biopacemakers engineered in the guinea pigs' hearts may hold promise for human patients for whom implanted electronic pacemakers pose an infection risk or are too large. Biopacemakers might also be able to adjust to the body's changing needs, whereas traditional electronic pacemakers cannot, says Eduardo Marban, MD, PhD, in a John Hopkins press release. Marban also mentions a hybrid pacemaker as a possible future application of the guinea-pig heart experiments. The hybrid would be part electronic, part biologic.

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