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Forget drugs – these scientists want to treat heart disease with algae

Photosynthesis isn’t just for plants. Stanford researchers want to use it to save lives, too.

You are probably most familiar with photosynthesis as that thing you learned about in junior high school that explains how plants convert light energy into chemical energy in order to live. Over the years, there have been some interesting tech-related investigations into photosynthesis — ranging from “artificial leaves” capable of powering houses to potential methods of large-scale energy generation in a carbon-neutral manner.

Now researchers from Stanford University have a new use in mind: Utilizing photosynthesis and photosynthetic bacteria to help deliver oxygen around the body, in cases where blood flow temporarily stops due to blockages.

“We set out to try to think of different, out-of-the-box ways to approach heart disease,” Dr. Joseph Woo, chair of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford and lead author on the study, told Digital Trends. “I wanted to know if there was any way of taking photosynthesis, this natural mechanism which exists every day in the world, and harnessing it to try and increase oxygen in an otherwise oxygen-starved heart.”

Woo’s team started out by grinding up spinach and kale to combine with heart cells in a dish, but found that the process was not stable enough. Next, they successfully used photosynthetic bacteria in the form of blue-green algae, which is more rugged due to living in the water. They found that it was able to survive with heart cells in a dish.

The researchers then injected the bacteria into the beating hearts of anesthetized rats with cardiac ischemia, one of the conditions caused coronary artery disease. They found that the heart function of rats whose hearts were subsequently exposed to light were considerably healthier than those kept in the dark. While the bacteria dissipated within 24 hours, the improved cardiac function in the rats continued for upwards of one month.

It is still early days for the research, but Woo said the discovery might one day be applied to humans. Since physically opening up humans suffering from heart attacks, so that their hearts can be exposed to light, is not an ideal course of action, his team is investigating alternative methods a similar photosynthetic effect could be achieved. One possible solution involves finding ways to insert micro light sources into the body, while another could utilize the different wavelengths of light to find a light source that is able to penetrate the body.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Science Advances.

Credit : Luke Dormehl

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